South Africa: Paying the Price for Mining

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Thus far, the more proactive steps are coming from the local community. The Merafong Council, which includes the town of Carletonville and surrounding district, has put up signs warning people to not use the water and has provided drinking water to informal settlements on the river's banks.

"Although Water Affairs in their latest reports indicate that the water itself is safe, it is a known fact that there are sediments that are contaminated with radiological elements," said Albie Nieuwoudt, Strategic Executive for Economic Development, Planning, and Environmental Management at Merafong.

"That's why we put up the signs. We've just created our own Environmental Management section to look at issues arising from dust and slime dam residue; we've got a duty to protect our citizens."

Frustrations with government

Rene Potgieter, a former peat farmer who now works on the Wonderfonteinspruit contamination issue, said, "We have a group here organised through DWAF where water quality is monitored. I sit on the committee, and on a regular basis we look at what the discharge water qualities are. You just see noncompliance, noncompliance, noncompliance. But all DWAF does is monitor - they don't do anything with those results."

Basically we're just keeping the cattle alive and having to borrow money from the bank. This was supposed to be my legacy to my children, but everything has been stopped. This is horrible

Nieuwoudt said he had heard of NNR reports about vegetable samples but had not seen them yet. "Apparently they found some pollution in some crops. "There are small community farming projects using that water source from boreholes, so we need to be informed."

The NNR has made statements that contradict its own reports, several of which classify food samples as above the accepted limit. On 7 February 2008 it issued a statement about the Wonderfonteinspruit that said, "No evidence has been found indicating unacceptable levels of radioactivity in vegetables, fish and meat samples." NNR's CEO, Maurice Magugumela, has also assured the public that food from the area was safe to eat.

Yet an NNR status report in October 2007 said: "The NNR collected samples of vegetables (onions, asparagus and oats) and fish in the area and sent these for analysis. The projected doses from the samples taken indicate that the total doses from some [of] the samples taken are above the dose constraints and dose limits ... and are of safety concern from a radiological point of view."

When questioned about these discrepancies, Magugumela stated that it was a complex issue and different international measurements were used to determine dosage and when intervention was appropriate.

Acid Mine Drainage

After 100 years of mining in South Africa, the subterranean infrastructure is vast and many neighbouring mines are interconnected for safety reasons. To mine for gold, mining companies must displace the groundwater for the duration of the mining operation by pumping it out. This slurry carries an assortment of naturally present heavy metals to the surface on the slime dams and discharges water.

When a mining company ceases operation, water begins to re-enter the area and reacts with exposed pyrite, a mineral formation, which creates sulphate. Sulphate reacts with water to become sulphuric acid, which then dissolves the heavy metals into the mix as the water rises and eventually "daylights" onto the surface. At this point, the water is considered to be acid mine drainage (AMD) or "mine water decant".

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