A report on the feasibility of the proposed long-term solution to South Africa’s acid mine drainage problem, already submitted to the Department of Water Affairs, would be made public, department spokesman Sputnik Ratau said on Wednesday.
South Africa’s acid mine drainage problem affects an area far wider than the Witwatersrand’s three “basins”, where the potential pollution of water sources is seen as most urgent.
The report, including how much fixing the acid mine drainage problem will cost, would be made public once “all the internal processes are completed”, Mr Ratau said. This would not likely be this year.
“It has to go through the processes including presentation to the interministerial committee (on acid mine drainage) and ultimately the Cabinet. Looking at the programme of the Cabinet and government right now, we do not envisage it being in this year,” he said.
It is also likely tax revenue will be used to sort out the problem, at least in the Witwatersrand, as many of the mines from which polluted mine water could leak are defunct, and the owner companies dissolved.
In the Witwatersrand’s Western Basin (Krugersdorp-Randfontein area), where acid mine drainage reached the surface, or decanted, in 1996, polluting rivers and threatening the Cradle of Mankind cave network, the so-called short-term solution was operational, Mr Ratau said. No acid mine drainage was decanting.
The department is in a race against time to protect one of Gauteng’s premier tourist attractions, Gold Reef City, from acid mine drainage decant.
The casino and entertainment venue, just south of Johannesburg in the Witwatersrand’s Central Basin, brought JSE-listed Tsogo Sun R1.2bn in income in the year to March.
The construction of an acid mine drainage pump station, water neutralisation plant and waste and “neutralised water pipelines” at the former East Rand Proprietary Mines began in January and was due for completion next month, Mr Ratau said.
Similar work was “projected” for the Witwatersrand’s Eastern Basin, covering the East Rand.
Mr Ratau said the government and its advisers “firmly believed … significant progress (was being) made towards addressing this critical challenge to our environment and water resources”. There were socioeconomic consequences, he said.
But the government has been criticised by several activists and academics for a tardy response to a problem scientists pointed out decades before it emerged, and urgently in 1996 just before acid mine drainage decanted in the Witwatersrand’s Western Basin.
Acid mine water arises primarily when the mineral pyrite (iron disulphide or “fool’s gold”) comes into contact with oxygenated water, oxidising and producing highly corrosive sulphuric acid and ferrous sulphate and then rust and more sulphuric acid, says University of the Witwatersrand researcher Terence McCarthy.
When acid mine water reaches the surface it may result in high levels of salts, sulphates, iron, aluminium, toxic heavy metals and some radioactive particles. This noxious mix causes ecological degradation, and compromises human and animal health.
Pyrite occurs with gold and coal deposits, most of which lie in the catchment of South Africa’s most economically important river, the Vaal. Coal deposits also lie in the grasslands of Mpumalanga, described by scientists as South Africa’s “water factory”, and in KwaZulu-Natal.