Every day 300 million litres of water laced with sulphuric acid and heavy metals, known as acid mine drainage (AMD), bubbles to the surface around South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg.
New legislation, along with improved treatment plants to be built, aims to partly address the decades-old problem by incorporating new thinking on both AMD and mining, but environmental activists say the government needs to implement better land management and stricter regulation if water and food security are to be properly protected.
In July the government is to introduce a Regional Mine Closure Strategy that will manage mining districts rather than individual mines, said Stephinah Madau, Acting Chief Director of Mineral Policy at the National Department of Mining. South Africa is a treasure trove of minerals - from gold to coal - and close to 150 years of exploitation has driven the country’s development.
Madau made the announcement on 8 June at public hearing by the South African Human Rights Commission to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals and water security.
Historically, mine management and environmental impact assessments (EIAs) have been done on a mine-by-mine basis, neglecting the multiplier effects that a heavily mined area can have on the environment, said Prof Terrance McCarthy, of the Witwatersrand University’s School of Geosciences. The new framework is an attempt to manage entire mining regions and control ADM pollution at its source.
Madau said several studies that would give the department of mining a better idea of the extent of the AMD problem - and who was to blame - would be undertaken before the end of the current financial year in February 2010.
A much larger, and so far unsolved problem, was presented by mines that had closed, where AMD had seeped into the water table, McCarthy said. Researchers have proposed using either natural or artificial reed-dominated wetlands to filter the water and remove the heavy metals found in most AMD, but McCarthy said it was hard to know which was the best way forward.
Dr Koos Pretorius, director of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, a grouping of concerned NGOs, told the public hearing that an effective response to AMD would have to incorporate both legislation and proper land management.
AMD is perhaps one of the most pernicious legacies of South Africa’s long mining history. It occurs when rain or groundwater mixes with the chemical sludge found in mine shafts, becoming contaminated with everything from uranium to sulphuric acid and a host of carcinogenic heavy metals.
’’A 2007 report by South Africa’s National Nuclear Regulator identified at least 100 communities in mining areas that were located on radioactive soil due to AMD’’
According to Pretorius, it takes just 5 to 10 years for the shafts or pits to fill up, eventually decanting like an overflowing bath at the surface and placing land, drinking-water and people at risk. He said the government should devise a comprehensive land-use plan demarcating major water catchment and agricultural areas as mine-free.
In places like Middleburg, a farming and industrial town in the northern province of Mpumalanga, AMD has left land unusable and has also filtered into drinking water, some of which carries twice the World Health Organization’s limit on sulphates.
A 2007 report by South Africa’s National Nuclear Regulator identified at least 100 communities in mining areas that were located on radioactive soil due to AMD, 36 of which needed immediate attention.
There are currently 5,000 pending applications for new mine shafts in Mpumalanga alone, many on land identified for redistribution to the rural poor, Pretorius said. If these claims were processed after the mineral rights were granted and AMD had begun to decant, the land would be unfit for agriculture.
Bobby Feek, of the environmental advocacy group, Groundwork, pointed to the serious weaknesses of land-management tools such as EIAs, which continue to put communities at risk.
Less than one percent of EIAs are rejected by government permit-issuing departments, and there have been allegations that industry wields considerable power in the assessment process, with little consideration for communities who may already be vulnerable due to food insecurity and poverty.
"EIAs don’t consider the existing health of communities," Feek told IRIN. "Invariably, those standards are written for tall white men who play rugby, not vulnerable communities."
Source: Irin News