A legal dispute over the creation of a super-dump to process radioactive gold-mining waste near the Vaal River may set a pattern for the rehabilitation of hundreds of toxic dumps on the Witwatersrand.
But the plan is controversial. The non-profit Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) appealed against a water-use licence granted for the dump, citing fears that it is leaking uranium and other cancer-causing heavy metals into Gauteng’s main water source. The FSE said this week that the project should be suspended.
But Mine Waste Solutions, a subsidiary of mining giant Simmer & Jack, which is creating the dump after extracting uranium and gold from 15 old dumps near Stilfontein, said that it was a model clean-up and rehabilitation project.
The Legal Resources Centre was preparing this week to take the stand-off to court. “The case could set a precedent for other planned mega-dumps,” said attorney Naseema Fakir. “It’s about community participation and administrative justice.”
The centre’s national director, former water affairs director general Janet Love, was recently appointed to the South African Human Rights Commission. In March she set up a special HRC committee on human rights and water pollution.
The FSE says there are more than 270 mine dumps in the Witwatersrand Basin, covering 400km2 and containing radioactive and toxic waste that “will remain an environmental and societal risk for hundreds of thousands of years”.
Mariette Liefferink, the FSE’s chief executive, said a recent “nuclear renaissance” in South Africa was responsible for mining companies’ renewed interest in re-processing the dumps, “which contain an estimated 450 000 tons of uranium”.
Objecting to the authorisation of the super-dump, about 2km from the Vaal, the FSE said correct procedures were not followed and the local community was not kept informed. It initiated the case on behalf of local residents and the Paradyskop Conservancy, who rely on shallow boreholes for drinking water.
Liefferink said Mine Waste Solutions originally undertook to line parts of the dump with heavy-duty plastic to prevent seepage and to build a sulphuric acid plant to counter acid drainage. It appeared to have reneged on this. “There’s a very high risk of large quantities of polluted water entering the Vaal catchment,” she said.
Mine Waste Solutions spokesperson Gail Strauss said re-processing the 15 old dumps and consolidating them into one facility provided an “environmental solution in an area that has been ravaged by mining for 50 years”. Consultants’ tests had shown the operation would reduce gold content in the area by more than 50% and uranium by 25%, while reducing the salt load on the Vaal by up to 50%.
“Tests were carried out on the basis that there would be no sulphuric acid plant attached to the site,” she said. The water affairs department chose the site, which contained clay soils that would not leak, she said.
Strauss said Mine Waste Solutions had not suspended the project, despite the FSE’s plea for the withdrawal of its licence because the appeal was not lodged in time.
Liefferink countered that the FSE had not been notified about the licence application or the decision to grant it, despite requesting documentation in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
She said she had evidence of seepage into the environment from the pipes transporting mine residue from the old dumps to the super-dump.