Earthlife Africa Johannesburg calls for urgent public consultations to discuss plans for dealing with acid mine drainage
Media release of 24 February 2011
The Johannesburg metropolitan area faces a very serious threat to its streams, rivers and groundwater sources in the form of “acid mine drainage” – a toxic legacy of the city’s mining past.
Since 2002, heavily contaminated water has been flowing into streams on the West Rand, and unless appropriate action is urgently taken, further problems will emerge in the coming months. Acid mine water from the Central Basin is predicted to flood the tourist level of the Gold Reef City shaft by June 2012, and water in the Eastern Basin (below the East Rand) is expected reach the Environmental Critical Level by June 2013.
Years of inaction by mining companies and government has led to a situation where urgent, temporary measures must now be taken to deal with the immediate threat, while plans are developed for a longer-term solution to the broader problem.
As a temporary solution to the immediate challenges, the South African government has produced a short-term action plan to pump and partially clean the contaminated water accumulating underground and then release it into surface water courses. Over the coming weeks, “Public Open Days” will be held to discuss the plan for each of the three affected areas (see dates and venues below). These Open Days are being organised by Digby Wells Environmental, who are undertaking the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project, which is then to be implemented by the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA).
Earthlife Africa Johannesburg (ELAJ) understands that these Open Days have been planned essentially as “exhibition” days – i.e., as opportunities for members of the public to “drop in” over the course of the day to see the plans and ask any questions they may have. In other words, concerned members of the public will not have a meaningful opportunity to hold those responsible for addressing the problem accountable within a properly consultative public forum.
Given the importance of this issue, and the inadequacy of past attempts to deal with it, it is vitally important that legitimate public consultation meetings are held that allow members of the public, especially people living in those areas most affected, not only to hear presentations but also to ask questions in an open and transparent manner, before the public at large, and in the presence of the media. Representatives of the Department of Water Affairs and Department of Finance must also be present, as their responsibility for satisfactory resolution of this urgent challenge is in no way lessened simply because they have contracted an outside party at operational level – particularly as there are extremely serious financing and operational questions that remain unanswered. A meaningful public process with government participation is essential to ensure accountability and a robust, appropriate and timeous response.
Furthermore, ELAJ is concerned that the whole EIA process may, in effect, be a sham, as it appears the implementation process is already underway, and decisions about the standard to which the water will be cleaned have already been made, without the required public scrutiny. Such a development deserves and demands answers from our public officials.
ELAJ acknowledges that the planned EIA public participation process includes opportunities for smaller meetings of stakeholders to meet at various stages during the process. However, these must not replace larger public meetings. ELAJ is also fully aware of the urgency of the crisis, and in no way seeks to delay the process. But urgency is no excuse for substituting a stage-managed process for real public accountability.
Dates and Venues for “Public Open Days”
ELAJ cannot endorse these meetings, as they fall far short of – and seem intended to replace – meaningful public participation in deciding these vitally important issues. However, should members of the public choose to attend, following are dates and venues:
1) Western Basin: This covers areas near Randfontein and Krugersdorp on the West Rand
– Date: Saturday, 25 February
– Time: 09H00 – 16H00
– Venue: Randfontein Golf and Country Club, Homestead Avenue, Robinson, Randfontein
2) Central Basin: This includes the area below central Joburg and the old mining areas around Davidsonville, Roodepoort, Riverlea, Diepkloof, Meadowlands, and Germiston up to West Boksburg.
– Date: Saturday, 03 March
– Time: 09H00 – 16H00
– Venue: Germiston Golf Club, Airport Road (Off Power Street), Germiston
3) Eastern Basin: This covers Boksburg, Brakpan, Springs and Nigel in the East Rand
– Date: Saturday, 10 March
– Time: 09H00 – 16:00
– Venue: Springs Country Club, Cnr Parkes and Nigel Rd, Selection Park, Springs
Whether members of the public choose to attend or not, following are some critically important questions that still require answers:
1) Where will the remaining funding come from for implementation? To date, only about half of the required R920 million for capital costs has been made available. In addition, operation and maintenance costs (estimates vary between R210 – R385 million a year for four years) will be needed.
2) Will the pits used to store the toxic sludge be lined? Without appropriate lining, contents will seep into underground water sources.
3) What are the consequences of the water only being partially treated? What is preventing desalination of the water as well as neutralisation? There is concern that the salt load of the water discharged into the streams and rivers will still be extremely high (estimated at over 3 times the Department of Water Affairs regulatory limit of 600mg/l) even after partial treatment.
To deal with the longer-term challenges associated with acid mine drainage on the Witwatersrand, the government has begun an investigation for a second phase to fully treat the contaminated water, but no details of this plan have yet been made available. Earthlife Africa will continue to monitor developments and will endeavour to ensure the public is kept informed.
For additional information, please contact:
Judith Taylor, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, Branch Co-ordinator, Tel: 082 389 3481
 The problem of “acid mine drainage” (AMD) relates to highly acidic water from abandoned mining areas contaminated with toxic heavy metals from the surrounding rocks. If not dealt with appropriately, such water poses serious risks to surrounding areas by poisoning food crops, endangering human health and destroying eco-systems.
 The project arises from the action recommended in the “team of experts” report commissioned by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Acid Mine Drainage released in February 2011. For reviews of this and a copy of the report, please visit: http://earthlife.org.za/?p=1543