||12 August 2007 12:00
Carol Albertyn Christie
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
The Wonderfontein Spruit starts near Randfontein in the north and moves all the way down south to Potchefstroom. It flows through the richest gold mining region in the world.
The Coetzee's have stopped farming mealies because the crops turned yellow when they were irrigated from the Wonderfontein Spruit. The water in Robinson Lake is as acidic as orange juice and is radioactive. Hundreds of fish who fed on the uranium-rich sediment of the Donaldson Dam died recently. Across the way, in the Krugersdorp Nature Reserve, many animals havevdied, and the herds of buck are showing signs of low fertility. The common denominator in all of these examples is uranium-contaminated water and, if unchecked, it may eventually reach Potchefstroom.
Mariette Liefferink (Activist): 'I want to emphasise this: I am not a 'greeny', or, as you put it, 'a bunny hugger!' I am an environmental justice activist.'
Many believe that South Africa's success has largely been founded on gold, and yet this woman - who looks like a glamorous executive - has single-handedly taken on the might of the gold mines on the West Rand. She is a South African Erin Brockovich, who has spent seven years of her life fighting for a cause that she is passionately committed to. She has written thousands of letters trying to get Government to act on what she believes is a national crisis.
Devi Sankaree Govender (Carte Blanche presenter): 'How serious is this situation?'
Mariette: 'There is more than abundant evidence that the chemical toxicity of the uranium in the Wonderfontein Spruit certainly can translate into a hazard or a risk to human health.'
South Africa was one of the countries that supplied America with uranium for its nuclear bomb programme called The Manhattan Project. Uranium is one of the most dangerous metals on earth. Not only is it highly toxic, but it is also radioactive.
Devi: 'Why is uranium so dangerous?'
Mariette: 'Uranium has two properties. It is chemically toxic; it can lead to kidney failure. It is also radioactive, which means it has a carcinogenic effect.'
Radium is a daughter product of uranium and was the key ingredient of luminous paint that was used in the First World War on clock dials. The factory women, who painted the dials, licked the paintbrushes that contained minute quantities of radium found in the luminous paint. They developed severe health complications and the phenomenon was referred to as Radium Jaw. Many of the women suffered from cancerous growths, anaemia and bone fractures and in some cases the illness only manifested decades later.
Mariette: 'But unfortunately - since we have stopped selling uranium to other countries overseas, such as the Manhattan Project - uranium is being dumped into tailings dams.'
It is still estimated that the gold mining industry discharges 50 tons of uranium into the watercourses every year. This is compounded by the 100 000 tons of uranium that are estimated to be in the tailings dams.
Dr Francois Durand (Zoologist): 'Half the people of South Africa live in Gauteng and we are right here on a nuclear waste site.'
Dr Francois Durand is a zoologist at the University of Johannesburg. He has been looking at the impact of the contaminated water of gold mining on the water quality.
Dr Durand: 'The water is very acidic and it contains a lot of heavy metals, of which many are dangerous to life - not only aquatic life, but also to humans.'
Mariette: 'I cannot justify that a major mining company that has deteriorated the ecology, would cause harm to the community and would not be prepared to pay for the pollution caused, or the health effects that may have been caused.'
Mariette Liefferink is a self-funded activist and has, in the past, taken on the oil giant Shell and won.
Wonderfontein is home to some of the largest gold mining companies in the world. AngloGold, Goldfields, DRD and Harmony are the four major operators. Mariette Liefferink believes they are largely responsible for the contamination of the Wonderfontein Spruit.
Willie Jacobz (Goldfields: Sustainable Development): 'The water that comes off our mines today... we must make sure that water is clean and drinkable and of a high quality.'
Willie Jacobz is the head of sustainable development at Goldfields Limited, the fourth largest gold mining company in the world, employing over 40 000 people.
Willie: 'It used to be a largely agricultural area. Subsequently, it has become overtaken by mining; and clearly mining has an impact, and we acknowledge that.'
Water is inextricably linked to the mining process. It is pumped out of the ground to get to the ore and it is also used in the extraction procedure. The mine effluent is meant to be pumped and contained into tailings or slimes dams.
Willie: 'Our company took very proactive steps throughout the '70s and the '80s. For instance, all of our slimes dams have got measures around them to prevent spills and runoffs. It does happen, but we manage it well.'
They may manage that aspect, but there is the history of over 100 years of uranium that is settled in the sediment of the Wonderfontein Spruit.
Sas and Douw Coetzee are farmers along the Wonderfontein Spruit. Their family has been tilling the soil for nearly three decades.
Over the years their irrigation dam started to silt up because of all the sediment flowing into the dam. In December 2001 the brothers decided to break the dam wall, take the mud out and build it again to have more water for irrigation. They had no idea of the consequences of their actions.
Douw Coetzee (Farmer): 'As soon as we started moving the mud, the National Nuclear Regulator arrived and asked us what we were doing and who gave us permission to move the mud from the dam.'
Devi: 'It must have been a shock to suddenly see people from the NNR pitch up on your property?'
Douw: 'We then realised that there is a big problem.'
They were stunned when the National Nuclear Regulator told them that their dam was radioactive. Their dam allegedly contains nearly a thousand times more uranium concentration than allowed by the Department of Water Affairs. But theirs is not an isolated example.
This is a radiometric image [on screen] of an area further north in the Wonderfontein Spruit. The red areas show an elevated radioactivity and are gold mine dumps. However, the image also shows that the radiation is seeping into the wetlands and waterways.
Devi: 'The most contaminated part of the Coetzee's dam is the sediment where the uranium and heavy metals have settled. The dam is about 30km from Potchefstroom. The question is: if there is a big storm or heavy flooding, will this sediment make its way to Boskop Dam? ... which 400 000 Potchefstroom residents rely on for their drinking water.'
When the Coetzee's broke their dam wall, Potchefstroom Municipality picked up uranium in their drinking water and took an interdict out against DRD - the closest mine nearby, who quickly fixed up the dam wall.
Devi: 'The closest mine to the Coetzee's farm is DRD - Durban Roodepoort Deep. Their former chairman was Brett Keble. We asked them for an interview and their response was that they didn't want to participate in our programme.'
Mahesh Rupa is Potchefstroom's Health and Safety Director.
Mahesh Rupa (Potchefstroom Municipality): 'It is true it is not easy to estimate the danger to Potchefstroom. But the safety of our residents is paramount to all issues.'
Although he is very concerned about the safety of his residents, part of the agreement with the DRD was that they would also rehabilitate the sediment spill at the Coetzee dam. To date this hasn't happened.
Devi: 'The point, however, is that agreement was brokered five years ago?'
Mahesh: 'In wanting to find a solution, it is not necessary to assume that we are going to do it in a manner that will be hasty.'
Although there have been some slightly elevated levels of uranium in the Boskop Dam, the municipality insists that the current water quality is well within allotted standards. The concern, though, is - the contamination is moving slowly downstream.
Marius Keet (Department of Water Affairs): 'We are concerned about all the catchments in South Africa, but specially the Wonderfontein Spruit because it is so heavily industrialised. The major concern is of course the mines.'
According to Marius Keet, the Government has created a task team of the Departments of Water Affairs, Mineral and Energy Affairs and Environmental Affairs to address the issues in the area. He has been monitoring the water situation for a while and believes that there is an improvement in the surface water.
Marius: 'Yes, there is a possibility that you have uranium in the sediment. In some cases the concentration of uranium in the sediment is fairly high. But that is in the sediment. As far as the water is concerned, I honestly think that the water is quite safe.'
Devi: 'The Department of Water Affairs has tried to reassure us by saying that the sediment is stable. But other studies have shown that if the water is churned by animals or people, the highly toxic uranium is mobilised.'
The National Nuclear Regulator released the Brenk report on 2 August this year, and it stated that there were 11 sites along the Wonderfontein Spruit that exceeded the annual limit of radioactivity. One of the concerns in the report was the irrigation of vegetables from these sites. Khutsong is a town of about 150 000 people and many of the residents rely on this water source. Carte Blanche tested some leeks that were growing near the river.
Even though the NNR report said that 'none of the lives of the residents are in any impending danger', the leeks we tested contained sixteen times more uranium per kilogram than the daily limit, as suggested by the World Health Organisation, for human consumption.
Devi: 'Although many of the farmers are aware of the water problem, there is still a lot of agriculture going on along the Wonderfontein Spruit. This [on screen] was a peat farm that supplied the mushroom industry. But in December last year they closed shop because they were concerned about the water quality.
Rene Potgieter (Peat Farmer): 'We became aware of the fact that the biggest threat to our business was this pollution plume that was slowly migrating down the Wonderfontein Spruit and seeping into the wetland.'
Rene Potgieter's peat farm is only about 4km away from Potchefstroom. She says that 95 percent of the peat that was used by the mushroom industry came from this wetland. She has been pressurising the government to do a peat study, but when the water quality deteriorated even further in the wetland and the mushroom yield dropped, they took those warning signs to heart.
Rene: 'Imagine the implication if all of a sudden the study is completed and it is discovered that there is uranium in this peat, and how many millions of people eating mushrooms?'
Rene Potgieter started the Potchefstroom Action Group to pressurise the authorities to deal with the issues for the future safety of their town and children.
Devi: 'The Coetzee brothers were primarily mealie farmers. This abandoned field behind me used to produce ears of corn.'
The mealie on the left [large] was irrigated by rainwater and the mealie [small] on the right from water from the dam. The Coetzee's say that all of the mealies irrigated from the contaminated dam were substantially smaller.
This has basically cost them their livelihood. The only thing left in their lands is khaki bos.
Douw: 'For the past three years we have been unable to irrigate because there was not enough water in the dam and we could also not take the mud out of the dam because the government told us it was radioactive. In the meantime we are suffering with huge damages.'
Sas Coetzee (Farmer): 'If you don't farm or produce then you face bankruptcy. In other words, we will end up on the street.'
During our research we could not find any studies that quantified the amount of heavy metals found in plants that were grown at the Wonderfontein Spruit. To our knowledge Carte Blanche has been the first to test vegetables that were grown in the area.
We tested a cabbage and leek, the leek is more contaminated - possibly because it grew closer to the water stream. The cabbage, we believe, was irrigated by borehole water.
Dr Francois Durand interpreted the results based on the Department of Water's daily guidelines and said that the heavy metal levels were unacceptably high. His concern is that heavy metals accumulate in the body.
Aluminium has been linked to Alzheimer's, iron to haemochromatosis and manganese to neurological problems.
Rene: 'You can't see the effects on human health because they haven't done studies yet on human health. I think the biggest reason they haven't done studies yet is because they don't actually want to see the results.'
When mining started over 100 years ago they had little idea of the impact it would have on the environment. Given the amount of money the State was making from the mines, there was also very little impetus to create legislation to protect the environment.
Harmony is the fifth largest gold mining company in the world and was founded in the '50s as the Rand Mines Company, but listed independently in 1997. By law the mines have to set aside a remediation fund to rehabilitate the environment. Sandy Carroll and Rex Zorab work on Harmony's environmental team.
Rex Zorab (Operational Environmental Officer): 'The remediation fund is the one that is provided for at closure; now some of these legacy issues are addressed at that point.'
Devi: 'Are we then saying that we have to wait for the mine to close before we address issues of legacy that started earlier on?'
Sandy Carroll (Environmental Consultant): 'We can address some of those legacy issues already... that is what we term concurrent rehabilitation. Harmony has some plans in place to actually start addressing some of those issues in this area.'
Devi: 'So why weren't plans put in place when you came, when you knew what you had walked into?'
Sandy: 'Absolutely, I think the focus has always been to work within the regulatory framework in terms of our operations, which we have done all along. It is only recently that we have realised that there is an opportunity in actually starting to address some of those legacy issues.'
To compound the issue, not only is the surface sediment contaminated, but the underground water is also toxic, as it percolates with the heavy metals that have been exposed during mining.
In 2002 this acidic water started pouring out of a disused mine shaft on Harmony's land.
Dr Durand: 'The lake behind me has a pH of 2.2. Now that is acidic as battery acid. I have a sample of this; it is not water, it is acid.'
As an emergency measure, Harmony pumped this toxic water into Robinson Lake where it could be contained. The uranium levels here are 40 000 times above the natural background levels.
Devi: 'Listening to you, Francois, I get so upset. Why is somebody not doing something about this?'
Dr Durand: 'This is what we are trying to do now.'
Devi: 'But what about government departments?'
Dr Durand: 'The problem with government is that they have to try and sustain the economy. If the mines close down, suddenly millions of people - that is mine workers and their dependents - haven't got an income.'
Nothing can live in this water. Robinson Lake is a barren radioactive wasteland. Harmony, who owned the lake at the time of the decant, sold the property, and it now belongs to a property developer who wants to build luxury houses around it.
Devi: 'At that time of selling that particular area, were you aware that the water was pretty toxic in that dam?'
Rex: 'We were well aware of it - that there was rehabilitation that needs to be done; it was in the current process.'
Devi: 'And the understanding was that the mine would rehabilitate the dam?'
Devi: 'Have you started work on it?'
Rex: 'When you say have we started work on rehabilitating it, the answer is no. Have we started work on investigating the rehabilitation routes? The answer is yes.'
The decant happened five years ago and Harmony is still thinking of ways to sort the problem out.
Given the potential for harm, one would expect the government to be diligent about what went into the waterways. But judging from the Coetzee's cell phone footage of mine effluent on its way to the Spruit, the mines aren't sticking to the rules.
Marius: 'It is very difficult to be on site on a 24 hour a day basis. If necessary, we can take them on; we can take them to court.'
Devi: 'Have you ever taken them to court?'
Marius: 'Not the mines, not these mines. It is always better to do an evaluation and rehabilitate than just to give them a penalty of R50 000 or R100 000. But if necessary, we will do it.'
Gold mining will still continue for at least another 40 years. In their defence, Goldfields has created a forum of all of the key players to address these issues. But the affected parties feel that another forum, like all of the reports that have been written, may just be delaying tactics.
Devi: 'You knew the impact of mining was having on the environment. But from their side it doesn't look like much was done or that their issues were taken seriously. What would you then say to them?'
Willie: 'We're doing it today.'
Devi: 'Is it good enough, though, doing it today?'
Willie: 'We can't run back the clock. We have to deal with the issues that we are faced with today.'
Mariette: 'It is time now that people should not serve the economy, but that the economy should serve the people.'
Mariette Liefferink believes that the mines may well in the future be forced to address the environmental issues, because their shareholders won't want to be associated with dirty gold.
Dr Durand: 'The people who own these mines sit outside the country and they don't have to drink the water. We have to drink the water. We have to sit here with all this rubbish and pollution. We have to sort out the ecological problems, not them!'
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.