Growing up on the East Geduld Mine, a gold mine at the far east end of the South African Witwatersrand, we often went to play around the slimes dams and the pools of orange, green, and blue waters that dotted the landscape. Our parent forbade us to go there, for there were stories of kids sliding into pools, drowning, or worse, being entombed in collapsing caverns in the slimes dams. But that made our adventures all the more exciting.
When the Bafokeng slimes dam failed it killed thirteen. Less reported is the fact that a dozen or more skeletons were found in the slimes that flowed from the breach. The conclusions was that these were people killed and dumped, or maybe in a drunken state fallen into the pond. There was a path along the crest of the pond from the mine to a local village and many of the mine workers would traverse this path to and from work. There were no records of that many people going missing but that was the way of mines in South Africa in those days.
So it is with nostalgia and interest that I find a blog called kwathema monitor. Here is an extract from one of the postings–I edit to ease reading, but try to retain the flavour of the speech patterns.
The East Rand has been mined for more than a century. It is a gold and uranium mining basin with extraction from more than 50 mines. The East Rand basin covers an area of 1000km, and has some 400 square km of mine tailings dams.
Waste from gold mines constitutes the largest single source of waste and pollution in South Africa.
Kwa Thema, Paynville, and Daggafontein in the East Rand are townships which are highly affected by this waste from the mines called tailings dams which produce acid mine drainage (AMD) and heavy metals like sulphur.
Acid mine drainage is responsible for the most costly environmental and socio-economic impacts. AMD pollutes water and soil and affects the health of communities living near these tailings dams, as is the case at Kwa Thema, Paynville, and Daggafonteim. Acid mine drainage polluted water may lead to increased rates of cancer, decrease cognitive function, and the appearance of skin lesions. Heavy metals in drinking water could compromise fetal neural development, which can result in mental retardation.
In Section 9 in Kwa Thema are low cost houses built on the footprints of or adjacent to Vlakfontein mine, which is now closed. The waste will continue to generate AMD for centuries affecting the poor community.
I took the initiative to talk the families who are living close to the waste.
The questions I ask them.
1. What they know about tailings dams?
2. Do they know about acid mine mine drainage?
3. Do their children play in the waste?
4. When these houses were built were they informed about the dangers?
1. They only know that this comes from underground from the mine.
2. They know acid but not aware that this waste is acid.
3. The kids do play in the waste.
4. They were happy for the houses; they did not ask anything about the waste.
I took some time to educate them about the dangers of these tailings dams to their health and the next generation. I told them that they must not drink water that comes from the AMD. I did the same with the family of Zodwa Mkhwanazi and Mike Mokoena. I ask them to try and spread the information.
In Paynville I spoke to Simon Mahanzula who is a cigarette rep. I used the same question above. His response is that, “Thou he has knowledge: the tailings dam is not fenced so people pass through when they go to the shops and kids play football.”
I made an appointment with community leader Zwelibanzi Mbatha. He can be available after elections. I left my particulars and took his.
I spoke to a local government spoke person known as Mr. Mahlasela. I ask him about the tailings dams in the three places. His response was that:
The Government has called a meeting with the mine owners in May. He is not sure of the exact date. He will find out for and email it. The mine owners must account for the waste and come with a way forward.
Daggafontien is next to attended to, because it a remote area.
Acid mine drainage has been estimated to be the greatest ecological risk next Global warming. If indeed the extent of problems related to mining waste may be rated as second only to global warming the East Rand mining area of South Africa is a serious risk especially the poor and woman.
Arguably the sin of our day is failure to care for poor in this Environmental destruction. I invite everyone to make awareness on this issue. I am still busy with matter.
MESHACK MBANGULA, Kwa thema environmental org.
This is a vivid picture of the much bigger threat to the Witwatersrand. As I understand it, now the mines are worked out, the groundwater table is rising and the water is acidic. But in addition, there are still all those old ponds and slimes dams from my youth, still blowing sand, seeping water, and eroding solids to the surroundings. If anything is to be done, it will cost billions.
A fence is no good: it will be stolen within a week of erection. The only solutions are to rework the tailings and place the residue in new, stable tailings impoundment facilities. if this cannot be done, covers must be constructed. Maybe people have to be relocated.
To do all this will challenge the mining companies that remain, stretch the government, and put a lot of people to work. And that is not a bad thing, if only there is money to pay them.
Meanwhile we must support the Kwa Thema blogger who is trying to do something.