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Acid Mine Drainage: A Prolific Threat to South Africa’s Environment and Mining Industry

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 09:12
Mining operations continue to play an integral part in the development of the South African economic and political landscape. However, they have brought ‘immense’ wealth to some, but at the price of extensive ecological damage

Comments

It garvanment resposibility to take care of mining workers and ensure that workers are not working hard.
If I had a rand for every time I had addressed and other NGOs have addressed the problem to govt., we would all be well funded. This is affecting our agriculture, our health, our water and our future. Yet the govt still grants mining licences in catchments and destroys more water. Greed is master! And the South African people are destroyed unless we stand against the current govt's desire for riches which do not include the previously disadvantaged. It is so easy to walk over those who STILL have no voice, because their loss will make you richer. Each and every Earth Steward will stand up and warn those who do this that they will suffer. It has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, it is happening in Libya. Africa is realising that the governors are not stewards of the future. They are rebelling against those who grab the very life from the ground. Arise Africa and protect your land! Honour your people, your future and your children! Realise that your power and resources do not belong to others, they are precious and require nurturing. Stand proud and change your destiny! Sieze the hour for it is yours if your have the courage. From Facebook by Judith Taylor.
South Africa faces a number of critical environmental challenges ranging from land degradation to the obliteration of finite resources, but it is the problem of acid mine drainage (AMD) that may be its most perilous hazard in terms of its ramifications.2

It is necessary to comprehend that ecologically, South Africa is a country that is bereft by a water security dilemma; whilst on the economic front, the country is driven by a strong mining industry. Ultimately, these two trends have become more precariously positioned in relation to one another over the last decade as a result of the spewing of highly acidic water into the country's water system, endangering communities as well as ecosystems along the Vaal and Limpopo Rivers. This may place undue stress upon the country's economy and water-strained environment, potentially undermining the agricultural and industrial sectors.

As such, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) expressed such concern about the impact of AMD on these mentioned concerns stating that its effect upon the environment can be rated as second to the impact of ozone depletion, as well as global warming.3 It is thus of the utmost importance that the Government, in collaboration with the mining sector, create a coherent policy framework that will draw upon the initiatives of actors across a variety of sectors in order to mitigate this issue. However, it is precisely an integrated policy framework that appears to be lacking when dealing with this dilemma. As a result of these mentioned impacts of AMD on South Africa's residential communities but also its natural ecosystem, it may be surmised that these effects will persist. Perhaps not only in the near future, but for hundreds of years to come.

In order to expound upon the issues that have been noted, this article examines the origins of the problem, and evaluates the initiatives that have thus far been carried out by the Government. The paper further examines the response of the mining industry in order to mitigate this problem.

The poisoned well:

Mining operations have played an integral part in the development of the South African economic and political landscape. They have brought immense wealth to some, but at the price of extensive ecological damage. This can be witnessed by the release of acidic water, otherwise known as acid mine drainage (AMD), into the country's already-stressed water supplies in the northern gold mining fields of the Witwatersrand region.4 As from 1996, both the scientific community as well as environmentalists had campaigned the Government as well as the mining industry to manage the AMD problem. Thus far, the response from both sectors seem to have remained alarmingly slow.5 The physical manifestation of AMD first came to the fore in 2002 in the West Rand Basin, when flooding as a result of heavy rains in the area issued 20 million litres of AMD a day into the surrounding water supply.6

In order to further illustrate the seriousness of the dilemma, leakages of as much as 36 million cubic metres a day of AMD are imploding into the region's water systems, and this spewage currently threatens the world heritage site that is located in the region, known as the Cradle of Humankind.7 Moreover, the polluted water that arises from these abandoned mines is threatening residential communities that reside in the vicinity, especially those that live along the Vaal and Limpopo Rivers.8 However, the most aggravated case of AMD is located in the vicinity of Johannesburg, as well as the Witwatersrand.9 In order to comprehend the manifestation of this problem, it may be necessary to briefly note the role of the South African mining industry in the creation of AMD.

South Africa's gold mining industry had commenced in the 1880s and played a strong role in creating some of the country's most important historical milestones while shaping certain sectors of South African society. However, with duration of time, some mines had begun to shut down as a result of the depletion of the finite resources found within them. With the abruption of mining activities, an ecological process has begun whereby water in these underground mines rises to its previous levels and comes into contact with sulphide minerals, thus becoming highly acidic. This water then reacts with other minerals, which in turn produce other pollutants in the water such as aluminium, lead, zinc, uranium, radium as well as bismuth.10 AMD then refers to the phenomenon whereby this underground, highly polluted, acidic water flows outwards onto the surface, often, in very high dosages from abandoned mines.11

Frequently, the most important sites for the creation of AMD are the discharge from open pits, expulsion from underground mining shafts, as well as ore stockpiles.12 Thus, the water that spews from these mines is essentially a toxic end-product of underground mining activities.13 Moreover, because the formation of AMD is impacted by mineralogy as well as other variables, the formation of AMD will differ from one area to another, which renders the predictive capacity with regard to its formation - as well as occurrence - both highly expensive but also of ambiguous reliability.14 Nevertheless, it remains necessary to both understand and to treat AMD, as it is a costly problem which creates a number of environmental difficulties.15

As this underground polluted water rises to the surface, it becomes a part of the drinking water that is utilised by both the urban as well as agrarian population.16 This is further aggravated by reports which cite that approximately 80 percent of South Africa's water will be undrinkable by 2015 as a result of severe over-pollution with no remedy being present to reverse this trend once it comes into place.17 Moreover, the intake of this water is highly hazardous to human health as a result of the presence of uranium in the water.18 Currently, AMD not only poses a hazard to South Africa's water supplies, but also to its major industrial centres.

This is the case as analysts state that AMD will have a significant impact upon the buildings that are found in Johannesburg's' Central Business District.19 As such, while the Witwatersrand basins contain approximately five percent of AMD discharge, this AMD is responsible for approximately 20 percent of the salinity in the water which is also further aggravated by various metals.20 Alarmingly, scientist as well as experts warn, that due to the nature of the problem, it is likely to persist not simply for a few decades, but rather for centuries to come.21

Programme implementation:

To date, the problem of AMD has received a relatively high amount of exposure by the media, which has galvanised various stakeholders across the Government and civil society to find a workable solution to the problem.22 In spite of these efforts, AMD is exacerbated by various ecological threats that comprise South Africa's natural environment; a dilemma which has the ability to undermine various initiatives ranging from agriculture to a range of industries, thus spurring the Government and various actors from civil society to action.23 South Africa's water supply is further exacerbated by a number of negative conditions that deteriorate the water sector such as ageing infrastructure, excessive water loss, draught, illegal water use as well as pollution.24

In order to assess the extent of the problem, the Government has created an InterMinsterial Committee (IMC) with National Planning Commission Minister, Trevor Manuel, Finance Minster, Pravin Gordhan, Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor, and Mineral Resources Minister, Susan Shabangu, serving thereon in order to find a solution to the problem of AMD in the Witwatersrand Central and Western Basins.25

In order to procure an assessment of the situation, the IMC has invited a panel of experts to write a report on the extent of the problem as well as possible solutions. This report should also assess the choices that are available to the relevant stakeholders, but also potential cost ramifications of AMD.26 Their suggestions would then be presented to Cabinet who would then embark upon the search for the most appropriate solution and sources of financing to the AMD dilemma.27 Furthermore, the IMC has also been tasked with the responsibility of assessing what institutions have done thus far and to indicate which methods and technology are available for the amelioration of the situation.(28) The IMC is further expected to investigate reports from the agricultural as well as retail sector as to how this polluted water will impact South Africa's food production capacities.29

In order to assist the mining industry with the mitigation of AMD, the Department of Minerals and Energy (DMR) had subsidies the months of January, February and March 2010 with R7.5 million; however due to the extent of the problem, this amount falls dangerously short of the funds that are necessary to treat AMD.30 While this sum may initially appear impressive, the reality is that it is insufficient to purify the polluted water for even one month.31

The Department of Water Affairs has also attempted to ameliorate the situation through the creation of the Water for Growth and Development Programme which has thus far concluded that the water that had being contaminated by AMD poses as a critical hazard to the country's process of economic acceleration.32 Thus far, the Department extols that the threat of AMD is a prolific one and requires a solution that is centred upon both long-term as well as short-term solutions in order to deal with the ramifications of AMD to the country's water supplies.

The Government has thus far been severely criticised for not having been able to thoroughly address these issues with civil society and for being lax in their ability to provide the necessary information that has been demanded of them by these actors.33 Moreover, criticism further stems from the Government's seemingly lethargic and ambiguous reaction to the dilemma as a result of its attempts to coordinate action from five different departments in order to deal with the dilemma.34 In general it has been expected that the mining industry would have to bear the brunt of the costs for the clean-up of the AMD dilemma as they are essentially responsible for the creation thereof. However the Government has been devoid in its ability to hold the mining industry accountable and provided little oversight of mining operations.35

A response from the mining industry:

South Africa's mining industry is one of the most progressive in the world and has access to a host of resources. These range from 80 percent of the world's manganese, 41 percent of gold and close to 90 percent of the platinum and is the fourth largest producer of diamonds.36 Current analysis indicates that the mining industry consumes approximately six percent of South Africa's water resources, thus locating it as a prime actor in the country's water sector.37 Whilst the economy had hinged upon the production of gold, this has subsided as the economy became increasingly diversified. In terms of its position in the economy, the South African mining industry does play a significant role both in the genesis of the AMD problem as well as in the creation of the solution to ameliorate the dilemma.

With this in mind, the most stringent impact of the crisis could have been averted had those actors that were most responsible for the dilemma, such as DRD Gold (the fourth largest gold company in South Africa), worked more constructively with the Government to deal with the crisis.38 Due to the historical inability of previous regimes to hold the mining industry to account, it is that much more difficult a task to put into effect "the polluter pays principle".39 Nevertheless, the mining industry has been aware of the problem that AMD presents for a significant period of time, and had already presented their concerns to the Parliament in 1996 within their Strategic Water Management Report Plan.40 In the decade that followed, and under the guidance of the previous Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, the mining industry attempted to deal with the crisis. Yet, it was only able to have a minimal amount of success in this regard.41

A month in advance of the creation of the IMC, South Africa's Chamber of Mines has prioritised its obligation to assist the Government in tackling the issue of AMD.42 Thus far, it has stated that it will not only assist with technological input, but also the amelioration of AMD's negative societal consequences.43 However, the mining industry has accused the Government of showing little leadership with regard to this dire matter for the last decade that they have been aware of the significance of the problem.44 As these operations are expensive for the mining industry they come to depend on Government to create a coherent initiative. Yet, the mining sector had felt that initiatives were not being exercised urgently enough.

In the US, AMD, and its poisonous effects, are both cited as being the greatest environmental problem that the US Mining Industry is facing; and the situation in South Africa seems to be just as grave.45 Thus far, only a short-term action plan has been put into place by the Government, which in light of the gravity of the situation and its long-term impact, is less than desirable. As it stands, a long-term solution is of the utmost importance.

But still, due to the high costs involved it appears that no one is willing to shoulder the burden.46 This statement perhaps touches upon the crux of the dilemma as this problem is essentially construed with regard to who will carry the ultimate cost for its mitigation, as the operations necessary to mitigate this dilemma are profligately expensive.47 While a cohort initiative between the mining industry, the Government as well as civil society culminated in the Remediation Action Plan of the Wonderfonteinspruit in 2009, its overall impact has thus far being minimal.48

Concluding remarks:

South Africa's ecological well-being remains in a precarious position. Fighting the scourge of AMD becomes not only a matter of environmental importance, but also one of protecting vulnerable, local communities that depend upon South Africa's finite natural resources. The AMD scourge may place undue stress upon the country's resources and industries, and potentially undermine the overall stability of the country. While the mining industry has played an immense role in creating the country's wealth and spurring economic growth, it should also bear the responsibility for ensuring that South Africa's AMD problem be solved. However, this action is also stringently dependent upon effective Governmental policy coordination.

The urgency of the dilemma thus compels the creation of a solution that will ascertain that this problem be resolved both in its short-term as well as long-term capacity as the back and forth disagreements only bring the country closer to an irreversible ecological disaster.

- Anna Azarch, Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa Unit (enviro.africa@consultancyafrica.com). The February edition of the CAI Enviro Africa HIV/AIDS Issues Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com or http://www.ngopulse.org/press-release/consultancy-africa-intelligence. Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

- In addition to topical discussion papers and tailored research services, CAI releases a number of fortnightly and monthly publications, examining the latest developments in Africa, across a wide range of interest areas. Interested parties can click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to any/all of the CAI publications.
For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com or http://www.ngopulse.org/press-release/consultancy-africa-intelligence.

Notes:

(1) Contact Anna Azarch through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Enviro Africa Unit (enviro.africa@consultancyafrica.com)
(2) Department of Environmental Affairs - Republic of South Africa, "State of the environment", 19 November 2007; World Wide Fund, "Environmental problems in South Africa: Water on the Run". http://wwf.panda.org.
(3) Mandres, P., Godfrey, L. and Hobbs, P. 2009. "Briefing Note: Acid Mine Drainage in South Africa." Pretoria: CSIR.
http://www.csir.co.za.
(4) Andrea Zeelie, "Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect.", New Solutions, 10 August 2010, http://carinsmit.co.za.
(5) Brindaveni Naidoo, "Acid mine drainage single most significant threat to South Africa's environment" Mining Weekly, 8 May 2010, www.miningweekly.com.
(6) Cobbing, 2008: 451
(7) Andrea Zeelie, "Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect.", New Solutions, 10 August 2010, http://carinsmit.co.za.
(8)Federation for a Sustainable Environment. "Latest acid mine crisis calls for a constructive response from civil society", 20 January 2010, www.fse.org.za.
(9) Bill Corcoran, "Mining, people and the Environment," http://www.miningenvironmental.com.
(10) Cobbing, 2008: 452; Judith Taylor, "Acid Mine Drainage - Is this the end of life in Gauteng?" http://www.earthlife.org.za.
(11) Cobbing, 2008: 452
(12) Mandres, P., Godfrey, L. and Hobbs, P. 2009. "Briefing Note: Acid Mine Drainage in South Africa." Pretoria: CSIR.
http://www.csir.co.za.
(13) Bill Corcoran, "Mining, people and the Environment," http://www.miningenvironmental.com.
(14) US Environmental Protection Agency, 1994: 1.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Judith Taylor, "Acid Mine Drainage - Is this the end of life in Gauteng?" http://www.earthlife.org.za.
(17) Water Sense, "SA facing water pollution crisis." 28 September 2010
http://www.watersense.co.za.
(18) Andrea Zeelie, "Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect.", New Solutions, 10 August 2010, http://carinsmit.co.za.
(19) Karda-Nelson, "The acid mine drainage solution bandwagon", Mail and Guardian, 10 December 2010, http://www.mg.co.za.
(20) Brindaveni Naidoo, "Acid mine drainage single most significant threat to South Africa's environment" Mining Weekly, 8 May 2010, www.miningweekly.com
(21) Mandres, P., Godfrey, L. and Hobbs, P. 2009. "Briefing Note: Acid Mine Drainage in South Africa." Pretoria: CSIR.
http://www.csir.co.za
(22) Ibid.
(23) Department of Water Affairs, "National Water Week 2010: Together we can do more to save water.", 10 March 2010, http://www.dwaf.gov.za.
(24) Buyelwa Sonjica, "Keynote address." Department of environmental and water Affairs, 9 June 2010, http://www.dwaf.gov.za.
(25) Christy van der Merwe, "Experts to compile report on extent of AMD Problem." Mining Weekly, 6 September 2010, http://www.dwaf.gov.za.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Ibid.
(29) Bill Corcoran, Mining, people and the Environment, http://www.miningenvironmental.com.
(30) Brindaveni Naidoo, "Acid mine drainage single most significant threat to South Africa's environment" Mining Weekly, 8 May 2010, http://www.miningweekly.com.
(31) Andrea Zeelie, "Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect.", New Solutions, 10 August 2010, http://carinsmit.co.za.
(32) Federation for a Sustainable Environment, "acid mine drainage single most significant threat to SA's environment", http://www.fse.org.za.
(33) Megan Wait, "Water Dilemma: Political leadership essential to mitigate acid mine drainage problem." Mining Weekly, pg 8, November 5 2010, http://www.csir.co.za.
(34) Andrea Zeelie, "Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect.", New Solutions, 10 August 2010, http://carinsmit.co.za.
(35) Ibid.
(36) South Africa.info. "Key sectors: mining and minerals in South Africa", May 2008.
http://www.southafrica.info.
(37) Buyelwa Sonjica, "Keynote address." Department of environmental and water Affairs, 9 June 2010, http://www.dwaf.gov.za.
(38) Federation for a Sustainable Environment. "Latest acid mine crisis calls for a constructive response from civil society", 20 January 2010, www.fse.org.za.
(39) DRD Gold Limited, "About Us." http://www.drd.co.za.
(40) Megan Wait, "Water Dilemma: Political leadership essential to mitigate acid mine drainage problem." Mining Weekly, pg 8, November 5 2010, http://www.csir.co.za.
(41) Enviroadmin, "Statement on the Issue of Acid Mine Drainage", 22 May 2010, http://www.environment.co.za.
(42) Bill Corcoran, "Mining, people and the Environment", http://www.miningenvironmental.com.
(43) Ibid.
(44) Megan Wait, "Water Dilemma: Political leadership essential to mitigate acid mine drainage problem." Mining Weekly, pg 8, November 5 2010, http://www.csir.co.za.
(45) US Environmental Protection Agency, 1994: 1.
(46) Andrea Zeelie, "Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect.", New Solutions, 10 August 2010, http://carinsmit.co.za.
(47) Megan Wait, "Water Dilemma: Political leadership essential to mitigate acid mine drainage problem." Mining Weekly, pg 8, November 5 2010, http://www.csir.co.za.
(48) Andrea Zeelie, "Acid mine outrage: How South Africa
n communities are affected by government and industry neglect.", New Solutions, 10 August 2010, http://carinsmit.co.za.