Concern has grown in recent months that acidic water flooding abandoned mine tunnels under Johannesburg, the country’s industrial capital, will soon spill over into the water table of the surrounding Witwatersrand basin, threatening the health of millions of residents.
On 15 September 2010 the government announced a 10-year plan to clean up damage to the environment caused by some 6,000 disused mines, Reuters news agency reported.
But officials warned that companies that abandoned the mines may be forced to contribute to the clean-up costs, which now stand at 200 million dollars and can only increase.
Gold Industry’s “Legacy of Massive Contamination”
Leon Marshall, an environmental writer in South Africa, said on the National Geographic website that South African gold mining had left “a legacy of massive water contamination” in the Johannesburg area.
Rain and ground-water seepage has made water levels rise in the defunct mine shafts around the city. “The water is highly acidic from the chemical reaction that happens when the pyrite in broken rock is exposed to water and oxygen,” Marshall explained.
Most of the region’s mines have shut down and extraction and treatment of their water stopped long ago. “The result is that their acidic water has been rising at such an alarming rate that environmentalists fear it could soon reach and start corroding the foundations of the city’s high-rise buildings and even start seeping into underground garages,” said Marshall.
Mariette Liefferink, chief executive officer of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, an association of environmental organizations, said: “Former mine owners made billions and depleted resources… They left us with aquifers polluted with acid drainage. This is most immoral.”
Her organization was taking government departments to court over the acid drainage crisis, “which the government has been warned about since 1996”, she said.
“Government Has No Funding”
Environmentalists complain that for more than 50 years, reports on the effects of mining on South Africa’s water quality have gone unheeded.
More than 100 years of mining produced vast profits from the extraction of about 43,000 tons of gold and 73,000 tons of uranium.
But the South African government department responsible said it had no money to pay for the clean-up.
The director-general at the Department of Mineral Resources, Sandile Nogxina, said that officials had drawn up a long-term plan to rehabilitate the environment in mining areas and to clean up acid mine drainage, Reuters reported.
“The estimated cost for the 10-year rehabilitation plan was 1.456 billion rand [203 million dollars], excluding inflation, for which the Department does not have funding,” Nogxina said in a statement.
“Those abandoned mines whose owners can be traced will be held responsible in terms of the law,” he added.
The first targets for action would be abandoned mines posing an urgent threat to communities, such as asbestos sites and open pits.
“No Crisis” – Official
Nogxina said his staff were working closely with other relevant state departments and scientists on acid mine drainage, through a recently formed inter-ministerial task team, the Johannesburg-based Mining Weekly industry news website reported.
“We will not allow the situation to get out of hand and we assure that it will not reach crisis proportions. Government scientists have been working on the problem for a long time and scientific work that is being done is already at an advanced stage,” he pledged.
Government officials say they are “closely monitoring” the problem.
The Department of Mineral Resources’ chief director of mining and mineral policy, Ntokozo Ngcwabe, told MPs that it was not an “imminent horror show”, adding that it would take 18 months for the decanting of polluted mine water to reach the surface, South African newspaper Business Day reported.
A total of 48 asbestos mines in the Northern Cape and Limpopo have been rehabilitated since 1994, whilst 108 dangerous gold mine trenches and shafts have been rehabilitated over the same period, Business Day added.
Meanwhile, the mining companies may not be the force they once were, but the sector is still of major importance to the South African economy.
According to Reuters, South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum and ferrochrome, fourth-largest gold producer and a major producer of coal.