Johannesburg Gold riches spawn acid water woes

Feb 11, 2011 12:00 AM

Author: Jon Herskovitz

South Africa's city of gold, Johannesburg, may soon start being eaten away by acidic water flowing from the mines that created its astronomical fortunes. Mines dug more than a century ago stretching about 40 km (25 miles) along one of the world's largest gold deposits have reached their water storage limit and will start leaking a toxic cocktail of chemicals in the coming months, independent experts and government officials have said. If left unchecked, acidic mine water is expected to foul up works near the country's famed Apartheid Museum, flood basements in down-town Johannesburg and then seep into the streets of the city of about 4 million people.

"The threat of acid water decanting from old mine workings is a real and present danger. It poses a threat to our economy, environment, health and history," Terence McCarthy, a professor of geology at the University of Witwatersrand, wrote in a report. Acid mine drainage has plagued derelict mines globally for decades but most of the damage has been in remote areas. The problem for Johannesburg is that the city was built over its gold mines and that land now is home to some of the country's biggest firms and greatest population densities. About three years ago, the last major pump removing water from the mines stopped, signalling an end to a gold rush that brought wealth to a few while hundreds of thousands of black Africans went deep underground to dig.

Then the water began to accumulate in the massive underground cavities, reacting with rocks formed about 2.8 billion years ago and triggering chemical reactions that produced sulphuric acid, heavy metals, toxins and radiation. The water, once several hundred meters underground, has been rising at an average rate of 15 meters per month, with the void expected to fill up completely in less than three years. The leakage problems will be small at first and grow more costly the longer action is delayed. McCarthy said the spillage can be avoided by immediately setting up two pump and treatment stations along the main gold reef to keep the water to at least 300 meters below the surface.
"The solutions are expensive, though not technically daunting -- and must be implemented in a matter of months," his report said.

Picking up the bill
The government agrees that urgent action is needed but has given little indication it will do anything before the acid water reaches underground facilities in Johannesburg. A report from a government-appointed team of experts planned for release in early January has yet to see the light of day, prompting the opposition Democratic Alliance to say delays are putting lives at risk. Along with finding a way to solve the problem, government has yet to figure out how to pay for it. It cannot pass the bill onto firms since ownership of mines has changed hands so often and many firms have vanished. There also is not enough gold left to make it commercially viable for a new firm to go in -- and pay for a clean up. The environment ministry warned of the escalating costs of inaction about three years ago, saying in a report: "If the threat from acid mine drainage is not solved in the short to medium term, it is likely to persist for centuries to come." But environmental protection ranks low in the state's budget with the government giving it half the funds it allocates to state workers to help them pay their rents and mortgages.

On top of the funding woes acid mine water clean up, the mining ministry is already struggling to fund a 1.46 bn rand ($ 202 mm), 10-year plan for basic measures to prevent environmental damage from 6,000 abandoned and derelict mines.

Blind hippos and radioactive lakes
"We will not allow the situation to get out of hand; it will not reach crisis proportion," Sandile Nogxina, Department of Mineral Resources director-general, told parliament last year. But it has let the problem grow in the western Johannesburg suburbs, where acid mine water began leaking in 2002. In towns such as Krugersdorp, acidic lakes dot the landscape near mammoth, open piles of chemicals extracted from mines.
Signs warning of radiation are posted outside a sludge filled pool of a copper coloured liquid, hippos at a nearby nature reserve are going blind due to what is thought to be acid water run-off and fish are dying in polluted water near the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site -- a rich fossil site providing clues on the origin of humans.

"There is not insufficient information. The fact that government has not acted is astonishing," said Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, who has campaigned for acid mine water clean up. Liefferink is an expert on the mountains of iron pyrite dumps and toxic water leaks in the area as well as the devastating impact the pollution has had on the poor. She warns that the country's water supplies are increasingly at risk the more toxic water nears the surface and mixes with supplies of fresh water.
"Over 120 years, there were more than 120 mining companies who passed on or externalized their costs," she said.

"There are no short-term, medium or long-term plans put in place. It is just crisis management."

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