Joburg Advocacy Group (JAG): All You Need to Know About Acid Mine Drainage

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

All You Need to Know About Acid Mine Drainage

When the issue of toxic water started hitting the headlines earlier this year (see Tide of toxic water poses health risk), we knew we had to look into it. As it turned out, the situation is far more serious than even we could have imagined, and here's what you need to know about it.

In short, the Witwatersrand Mining Basin, which comprises the Western Mining Basin, the Central Mining Basin and the Eastern Mining Basin, is filling up with rainwater and surface runoff as old shafts are being abandoned and are are no longer being pumped out.

This doesn't seem like too much of a problem until you hear that the water is dissolving the cobalt, zinc, arsenic, cadmium and uranium from the exposed rock underground, creating a toxic cocktail that has the pH of battery acid (between 2.2 and 3.6 according to water activist, Mariette Lefferink, and as reported by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment). This is referred to as ACID MINE DRAINAGE or AMD, and it affects surface water, ground water and the soil for thousands of years. It's also RADIOACTIVE.
And, according to an article published in The Citizen on 16 August, "The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has linked long-term exposure to Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) to cancer, skin lesions and mental retardation".

The article also advises that: "The acid water further undermines underground rock formations, and could conceivably cause sinkholes on the N14 or undermine the stability of buildings ... and acid water eating away at underground rock threatens the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site".

Now, here's the thing:

About 11 million people live over this radioactive lake, which is now starting to "decant" or flow to the surface. The Western Mining Basin is currently decanting at a rate of 60 mega litres per day, enough to fill 240 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and the Central Basin is expected to start decanting from a shaft in Benoni in January 2012. Much of the current decant is flowing into rivers and streams, and so onwards through the river system to the rest of the country. Any future decants will do the same.

The immediate plan is to start pumping water from the Western Basin into the Central Basin to stem the current decant on the West Rand, which is really just like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The next plan is to "reclaim" excess water from the Witwatersrand Mining Basin, and to recover the cost of "purifying" this water by selling it to the Rand Water Board for consumption by the city's residents. But, as respected scientist, Dr Anthony Turton said at a water conference earlier this year, "no water treatment removes 100% of impurities 100% of the time", so how will residents know what is in their drinking water?

Our problem with all of this? No-one is consulting the 11 million people living above the mining basin about how to manage what Dr Turton has referred to as "the single largest environmental crisis South Africa has ever faced".

We understand that the issue of AMD is a legacy issue, but how it is being managed NOW is a governance issue, and we're really concerned that the city has neither formally advised residents of this threat nor put mechanisms in place to consult with them about it.
As we understand it, this is in direct contravention of not one, but several provisions in the constitution.

According to the Bill of Rights, which is enshrined in our constitution, "The state must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights" (Chapter 2, Section 7.2). These rights include:
  • the right to life (Section 7.11)
  • the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being (Section 7.24a)
  • the right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures (Section 7.24b )
  • the right of access to information held by the state (Section 7.32.1a)
  • the right of access to information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of rights (Section7.32.1b)
  • the right to have any dispute that can be resolved by the application of law decided in a fair public hearing before a court or, where appropriate, another independent and impartial tribunal or forum (Section 7.34).

Based on our understanding of these rights, we have applied for funding to test the constitutional responsibility of local government to advise its citizens of environmental threats like this one, and to consult with them on how they should be handled. We also want to test the constitutional rights of citizens to be informed about these threats, and to participate in the decision-making process related to them. It's a long process, but we'll keep you informed.

In the meantime ...

Report any problem with pollution - ESPECIALLY WATER POLLUTION - at Pollution Control.

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