A bitter paradox is unfolding in the economic heartland of South Africa: we’re short of water to drink; we are also running out of gold. Yet, as the sun sets on the gold industry, the waters beneath her commercial capital are rising.
Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): ‘It’s a thought almost too bizarre to contemplate. But, if nothing is done, from around November next year the Central Basin, which is already flooding underground, will start to decant. And what that means is we will see water in places that we don’t want to, like the basements of buildings in the Jo’burg CBD.’
57 Million litres of toxic water will be looking for a place to surface every day.
Dr Anthony Turton: ‘Let us not forget, the water we are dealing with here, in the context of acid mine drainage, is toxic waste. It is hazardous waste – let’s call it what it is.’
Dr Anthony Turton ended his career at the CSIR when he spoke out about the potential hazards of acid mine drainage that he said needed further investigation. Now he spends his time on the lecture circuit.
Dr Turton: ‘I am on record as saying that this acid mine drainage is South Africa’s own Chernobyl.’
Toxic water in the CBD… How did it get to this? Beneath the Witwatersrand lie millions of cubic metres of water found in spongy dolomitic rock. Scientists call them aquifers or compartments. Before mining, the water in these was pristine, but the only way that mining was possible was to remove it in large pipes above the ground.
Prof Terence McCarthy (Geosciences Department, WITS): ‘Within this dolomitic aquifer there are the capacity of many Vaal dams stored there, no question about that… huge resource!’
But that resource, according to Professor Terence McCarthy of the geochemistry department at Wits, is at risk. There is so much water in these underground aquifers that one estimate says volumes beneath our feet could equal five times that of lake Kariba. That would be 25 000 square kilometres.
Prof McCarthy: ‘Well, the problem is that we are poisoning the good water with the bad water because the bad water is now infiltrating into these natural aquifers.’
Terence explained that the bad water is coming from the mine void. This is a space of about 400 million cubic metres from the west to the east of Johannesburg that has been mined out over 120 years.
Prof McCarthy: ‘The best way to think about it is a sandwich, a jam sandwich. They were really mining out the jam.’
And the only way to get to the jam, or gold, is to pump out the millions of litres of water underground. But, no more jam means no more mining, and that’s when the problems begin. Pumping stops and the water in the rocks begins to flood the old mines as they are abandoned. In the process a complex chemical reaction takes place as water and oxygen react with the minerals from deep below and then come to surface as this red iron sludge, which acts like sulphuric acid.
Prof McCarthy: ‘So the water basically is a heavy metal toxic soup.’
Bongani: ‘According to one report there are over 8000 ownerless and abandoned mines. The profits that should have been used to clean up the mess have long disappeared into the bank accounts of happy shareholders. What may have been our most precious resource has been used by the mining industry as a dustbin.’
There are four main basins across the Reef – the Far Western, the Western, the Central and the Eastern basin. In each basin an ugly and unique story is unfolding. Grootvlei mine is the last man standing in the Eastern Basin. Their nasty little tale is that its new owners Khulugusa Zuma, Michael Hulley and Zondwa Mandela have for months failed to pay their staff, and the chaos above ground threatens the water levels below.
And as violence broke out, Carte Blanche cameras were there [May 2010].
Jock Botha, the foreman, and his pump station were all that stood between 82 million litres of flooding underground. He did the best he could while chaos reigned above him.
[Carte Blanche May 2010] Jock Botha (Foreman: Grootvlei Mine): ‘You are very welcome to pump station here. This is our pump station here – the heart of the mine.’
But on the 7th June the patience ran out for the last remaining team when another month went by with empty promises and no pay. The care and maintenance team stopped the pumps.
[Carte Blanche June 2010] Man 1: ‘We’re not pumping water any more for now on until [we are] paid up.’
No pumping meant that it was only a matter of time before the red toxic water came out of this old abandoned mine right opposite the Nigel Wimpy. The surrounding wetlands and the river courses would become a toxic swamp. But the workers’ anger drew attention and, two days after they stopped pumping, money was found to pay them. They turned the pumps back on.
[Carte Blanche June 2010] Jock: ‘This could really be disastrous.’
Travelling west from Grootvlei in the east, we enter into the Central Basin, beneath the City of Johannesburg. The story unfolding here is that already the floodwaters have started rising.
Prof McCarthy: ‘… Central Basin is that the water right now is about 550m below surface and it’s rising about 18m a month.’
Some say that the water will decant at a shaft in Boksburg, but Terence disagrees.
Prof McCarthy: ‘But I suspect that is not the case.’
Bongani: ‘Where will it happen?’
Prof McCarthy: ‘It will happen everywhere, because the problem is the mine workings are not freely interconnected. So the water is flowing in faster than it can flow laterally sideways towards Boksburg. So what that means is that it will fill up and spill out everywhere.’
One of the first places to flood will be a well-known landmark.
Prof McCarthy: ‘Gold Reef City will lose their underground mine. That will flood completely.’
And Standard Bank may find they’re moving out, rather than moving forward!
Prof McCarthy: ‘Building basements are most likely to flood – especially the ones close to the mining… where the mining took place. Like Standard Bank centre, for example, where they’ve actually built a museum. There’s a strong possibility that that basement will flood.’
And he predicts that municipalities like Boksburg and Germiston will find themselves in a puddle.
Bongani: ‘So what are the implications for the structural integrity of the buildings in the city centre?’
Prof McCarthy: ‘The buildings are normally sufficiently strong, but the problem is the water is quite corrosive – it attacks steel.’
Acid mine drainage is not new, but it’s a complex subject, and secrets and lies have been its hallmark. That did not deter Mariette Liefferink. With her trademark platinum locks and bling earrings, she has worked doggedly to bring the issue to the attention of the public through the media. She has withstood open hostility from some scientists, but she believes that the truth has been staring at us for a long time in the pages of their reports.
Mariette Liefferink (Foundation for Sustainable Development): ‘These reports have been paid for by public taxpayers’ money. Unfortunately, most of the reports are difficult to access. I do feel that academic reports should be used to the service of society. It would have absolutely no value if they are archived and only used, for example, to entertain academics.’
So the mines pay for research and scientists toe the line. That is how it has been since the apartheid years. Those that speak out risk compromising future funding. Dr Francois Durand from the University of Johannesburg is one of the few who doesn’t care who he offends.
Dr Francois Durand (Karst Ecologist & Zoologist, UJ): ‘What we are facing here is one of the most serious environmental catastrophes in South Africa.’
Mariette says acid mine drainage has been denied and downplayed – even before1994.
Mariette: ‘In the apartheid years there was definite collusion and the current South African government scenario… I would say the matter has become overwhelming and has become very complex and government is fearful to make the wrong decisions.’
1994, democracy and new acts such as the National Water Act, the National Environmental & Management Act, the Mineral & Petroleum Resources Act, the National Nuclear Regulator Act and the Constitution… so much legislation, but so little power. Even being able to hold directors of mines personally liable for pollution hasn’t made a difference.
Dr Durand: ‘We need the political will to see this thing through. We need to see people going to jail because of what they are doing – not only to the environment, but to the people of South Africa. And we don’t see that.’
The Department of Water Affairs’ Marius Keet has been shoved into the frontline to answer difficult questions.
Bongani: ‘People are calling this a catastrophe. That is how strongly they are putting it.’
Marius Keet (Senior Manager: Water Quality Management, DWAF): ‘And we agree from Department of Water Affairs’ side. We agree that this could be a catastrophe if you don’t look after it. But that is why you have got commitment.’
Bongani: ‘Left on its own, underground uranium doesn’t pose much of a threat, but brought to surface and it becomes, well, nasty. And here on the Witwatersrand there are hundreds of tonnes of the stuff everywhere.’
600 000 Tonnes spread over 400 square kilometres. While acid mine drainage pushes up to the surface, the opposite happens here as the poison from tailings and dumps seeps down into the water table. This has captured the attention of the head of CANSA research Dr Carl Albrecht.
Carl Albrecht (Head Research – CANSA): ‘I have often wondered if there is anywhere else on earth that has so much uranium lying on the surface in these big mountains.’
The Wonderfontein catchment stretches from Randfontein, about 100km west, towards Potchefstroom. No other river system has borne the brunt of 120 years of mining like this one. In 2007 Carte Blanche did our own tests to establish what was happening to food grown along that river.
[Carte Blanche 12 August 2007] Devi Sankaree Govender (Carte Blanche presenter): ‘The leeks we tested contained sixteen times more uranium per kilogram than the daily limit of human consumption as suggested by the World Health Organisation.’
Rene Potgieter understands just what happens when polluted mine water finds its way into the food chain. The Gerhard Minnebron eye is on her farm.
Bongani: ‘What is in this water? Sitting where we are it looks pristine.’
Rene Potgieter: ‘It looks absolutely exquisite. Smell it!… you’ve got rotten eggs… that is your very high sulphites. That is a direct link; it is one of the fingerprints of acid mine drainage.’
Bongani: ‘The Gerhard Minnebron eye is one of the two major sources of water for the town of Potchefstroom and studies concur that this water is contaminated with uranium. And so, from this channel, it is going to go all the way and end up in people’s taps.’
Dr Frank Winde (School of Environmental Sciences & Development, North West University): ‘We should acknowledge that our uranium levels in the water are way above what they should be and we should do something about it.’
Dr Frank Winde from the North West University in Potchefstroom has been studying the way uranium moves through waterways for the last 10 years. He has scrutinised well over 3 000 water samples taken by different institutions, including the mines.
Bongani: ‘Is it your sense that things have become better or worse since 2004?’
Dr Winde: ‘It’s not my sense, it’s a proper finding – especially in the Boskop Turfontein compartment where you have pure ground water… meaning no surface water, but ground water… which sits in an aquifer and actually shows a significant increase in uranium levels.’
The other source of Potchefstroom’s water is the Boskop Dam. Dr Winde’s study says that 800kg of uranium per year is flowing into this dam.
Dr Wilde: ‘Uranium only does damage, and all agencies state that our knowledge about the effects… health effects… of long-term, low-dose exposure to uranium-polluted water [are] not well understood.’
He also surveyed the scale in kettles in Potchefstroom and found uranium in those was 20 times higher than similar ones in Ventersdorp. Uranium levels in South African tap water are set at 70 mcg/l, but that is much higher than the 15 stipulated by the World Health Organisation. Cancer causing levels have been found at levels from 40 micrograms upwards.
Dr Albrecht: ‘At the moment the level is 14 mcg/l, according to Wilde. If it carries on increasing the way it has been doing for the last three years, which is about 3… 400%, then we will get to the cancer-causing level of 40 mcg/l within the next three or four years in Potchefstroom.’
But Marius and the municipality in Potchefstroom dispute Frank’s figures and say their water is the best it’s been for a long time and it is being independently tested. They were happy to share their test results with Carte Blanche.
Marius: ‘It’s coming from the Wonderfontein spruit, so that is a typical example where people shout and scream that we have problems with water. Yes, there is a challenge, but in terms of Potch – typical example – you can drink the water, it’s been treated.’
Downstream of DRD’s Blyvooruitzicht mine is the farm of Rene Potgieter. Her legal battle with them has dragged on for years. She believes her business folded because the uranium levels in her dam were too high. And she blames the mine. The National Nuclear Regulator later conducted tests on onions from her vegetable patch.
Rene: ‘I almost fell over backwards when the results showed high levels of uranium in our onions that were growing in this particular vegetable garden, that are irrigated by the borehole, which is the household borehole situated over there.’
But despite the presence of uranium on her farm and others in the catchment, the NNR did no follow-up studies and Rene wants to know why?
Bongani: ‘When you brought all of those things up, what did they say?’
Rene: ‘Basically silence.’
The story of the Western Basin is lots of talk, little action. That is the frustration of hydrologist, Garfield Krige. In 1998 the mines in the Western Basin stopped pumping. Garfield predicted that the water would come to surface in 2002, and that is exactly what happened right here at this borehole. Garfield was there to take the first photographs.
Garfield Krige (Water scientist): ‘Even if people didn’t believe us, they must have started believing us in 2002 because the evidence was there. We are now in 2010 and still nothing has been done, and that is a problem.’
45 Million cubic metres of water lies inside the Western Basin mine void. When it first decanted it was fairly clean, but the water pressure below opened up an old mine shaft and everything changed.
Prof McCarthy: ‘It came up a farmer’s borehole, which previously had been putting out good water. Now suddenly it was putting out this toxic waste.’
And it has been flowing ever since. 25 to 50 Million litres of this acid mine drainage decants here on Rand Uranium’s property. When they bought the property they agreed that they would partially treat the water and remove the iron in this treatment plant, but it’s hopelessly inadequate for the volumes. The water ends up flowing untreated through the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, where these two hippos hang out. John Munro is the CEO.
Bongani: ‘It is still something that you are responsible for, ultimately.’
John Munro (CEO: Rand Uranium): ‘No, we are not responsible for this water. We are playing a role in a much bigger solution, of which we are a part.’
And that is where it gets tricky – Rand Uranium say they are the good guys because they’re spending R2-million per month pumping. The story of water in this basin is one of incompetence by government and clever manoeuvring by the mines. It took three years before government issued a directive to the mines to clean it up. And Harmony, who owned the property at the time, said they couldn’t comply. Another four years and lots of meetings took place before the department issued another directive in 2009. This time new owners Rand Uranium said they couldn’t comply.
Bongani: ‘When the department issues you with a directive, how enforceable is it, or is it just a piece of paper?’
John: ‘No, we need to comply with directives. There has been legal activity around them in that there were aspects that were unachievable, and you can’t be expected to do something that is unachievable. And hence we have been working very closely with the department to get the directive and regulation around the water treatment plant to be achievable.’
Bongani: ‘So, as far as this directive is concerned, are you in these specs?’
John: ‘From the water treatment plant operation point of view, yes.’
But the latest directive, issued only two months ago, is so lenient that Garfield says it’s like raising the speed limit to 200km/h to accommodate speeders. And Mariette has criticised government for allowing them to get away with it. Government did try to fix the problem by giving them R6.9-million worth of lime to treat the water, but that has run out too.
Mariette: ‘The lime that is added there where it flows underneath the road causes the heavy metals to drop out. This is manganese, sulphates, iron, spikes in uranium, so this is on the bottom of the Tweelopies Spruit.’
And it forms a kind of Plaster of Paris crust that will kill aquatic organisms. So at least 10 million litres of water daily just pours out of old shafts like these and is running untreated down the furrow and into the Hippo dam, leaving behind this radioactive sludge.
Garfield: ‘The sludge in that dam definitely contains all the nasties that were found in the water when it decanted.’
But tragic as it may be, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a lot of fuss about two hippos in a local game reserve. But only five minutes’ drive downstream is the Rietspruit, a tributary of the Tweelopies, flowing for the first time in decades – right into the Cradle of Humankind.
Garfield: ‘What you are seeing now is partially treated acid mine drainage. About four-fifths of this stream disappears into the dolomitic aquifer underlying us.’
The acid mine drainage is currently poisoning 1400 million cubic metres of water in this aquifer. To put that into perspective, two of these aquifers would fill the Vaal Dam completely. Over 10 000 people draw groundwater from this source every day.
Garfield: ‘This water, as it is at the moment, is not suitable for any use, and that includes irrigation.’
But 2 600 hectares are being irrigated using this water, and there is irrigation taking place further downstream along the Crocodile River.
Garfield: ‘Whatever is in this water will definitely find its way into the Hartebeespoort Dam and then further down into the Crocodile River.’
As the acid mine drainage continues its relentless journey underground it also threatens fossils and aquatic life in the Cradle of Humankind.
Dr Durand: ‘It upsets me no end because this specific site contains some of the oldest fossils in the Cradle of Humankind and it has to face the brunt of the acid mine drainage. We find the acid mine drainage in the rivers just a couple of hundred metres from here and also in the groundwater.’
Some scientists have suggested that the Sterkfontein caves are not under threat, but others disagree. The truth is, we simply don’t know.
Bongani: ‘To my untrained eye it looks like it will take the Wisdom of Solomon to sort out. Government, industry, engineers, science, civil society… everyone is going to have to get their heads together. But the question is: do we have the time?’
Prof McCarthy: ‘Well, I think the politicians basically are fiddling. It’s like fiddling while Rome burns; it’s a shocking situation we’re facing at the moment.’
Bongani: ‘We are having poisoned water about to hit the streets of Jo’burg.’
Marius: ‘It’s not going to happen. I mean, that I can guarantee because we realise if we don’t do something now, within the next couple of months, in terms of making decisions, then we will have serious problems.’
Prof McCarthy argues that government should fit the bill for a pumping station run by themselves and not the mines.
Prof McCarthy: ‘A big slice of the revenue generated by those mining companies went into State coffers for more than a hundred years and it’s now payback time.’
Under South African law the polluter is supposed to pay, but ‘not I’ say the mines. DRD, Rand Uranium, and Mintails are the last men standing in the Western basin and they don’t want to cough up. They say they didn’t create the problem.
Bongani: ‘So John, who is going to pay for this – the taxpayer or the mines?’
John: ‘I don’t believe that has been determined. This is the challenge with a legacy issue like acid mine drainage, where the companies that exist today were not responsible for the creation of this problem.’
The department’s answer to this was to divide up liability according to mining activity. DRD would be responsible for 44%, Mintails 0.4 % and Rand Uranium 46%.
Bongani: ‘Have you accepted any apportionment of liability?’
John: ‘No, we have not.’
Rand Uranium and Mintails are both contributing to the costs of pumping, but DRD have told Carte Blanche that they would only accept 1.3% liability and would go to court to argue their case because they only operated in the area for five years in the ’90s.
Bongani: ‘The mines are saying that ultimately they are not going to pay for this.’
Marius: ‘Well, I am sorry, but the mines will have to pay.’
Bongani: ‘Rand Uranium allowed a discussion – DRD said absolutely not.’
Marius: ‘But that is typically the situation with the mines – some do accept their responsibility. DRD didn’t accept their responsibility.’
Bongani: ‘And what did you do?’
Marius: ‘Well, from the department side, we took them on in court and that will definitely carry on.’
But while the water rises beneath Johannesburg and the wrangling continues, there has been a solution on the table for some time. It’s called the Western Utilities Corporation.
Bongani: ‘The idea behind the Western Utilities Corporation was to pump the water to a central plant where it could be treated and sold to Rand Water at a profit, thus funding the clean-up process. A great solution if you’re the mine, but a tough sell to the consumer who would once again have to pay for someone else’s mistake.’
John: ‘The concern has been in the past that the mines would be profiteering from generically cleaning up something that the mining industry generically created. And that is not really the story here. The opportunity is… or the need is… to attract investor capital and investor expertise to turn this water to account and solve a significant environmental challenge.’
Bongani: ‘Is that the best plan on the table?’
John: ‘At this stage it is.’
But Anthony Turton believes we are being hoodwinked.
Dr Turton: ‘The Water Utilities Corporation is not a solution. The Water Utilities Corporation
is a response by the mining industry to government’s inability to comprehend the problem. And the Water Utilities Corporation said, ‘Right, we will solve it from a mine perspective. What we want is mine closure.’ And what they haven’t said is that they want to avoid the ‘polluter pays’ principle.’
Bongani: ‘Who would reap those profits, the mines?’
Marius: ‘Well, you can’t make a profit out of water and that is exactly why the first WUC proposal was not accepted by the department. So, we sent them back to do homework and that is what we are waiting for now.’
Dr Turton: ‘We cannot foist a solution onto 11 million consumers of water in the Gauteng area alone that is technologically questionable, to which they have had no say.’
The water beneath Johannesburg is waiting for no one. We have a window of opportunity, but its rapidly disappearing.