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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Acid Mine water drainage

An interesting article emailed to me. Written by a lady who works for a competitor, it raises some serious issue. It does not pose any solutions.

ContinuitySA’s Lynn Jackson provides an update about the issue of acid mine drainage (AMD) and its business continuity implications.
In South Africa the emerging threat of acid mine drainage (AMD) is becoming a real problem for organizations located in risk areas. However, the issue is not just restricted to that country, with the United Nations saying that it is the second biggest environmental threat facing the world; with only global climate change being more significant.
From a South African context, the country is in the middle of this crisis after more than a century of intense, and sometimes careless mining activity. This is a crisis the country has never faced before and one that cannot be avoided; it must be decisively dealt with to avoid serious infrastructure problems.
Real scenarios
While there are many areas in South Africa that may feel the AMD impact over time, to explain the extent of the threat let’s examine the Witwatersrand, which is divided into four underground basins:
1. Eastern Basin (Nigel to Germiston): The water level is 700m below the surface and if the final pumping station ceased operations, it would be flooded within 30 days. At risk are the municipalities of Nigel, Boksburg and Germiston.
2. Far Western Basin (Westonaria to Carletonville): Fortunately, mines are still operating in this area. The Boskop Dam (the source of water for Potchefstroom) could be in danger as 800kg of uranium flows into the dam each year.
3. Western Basin (Krugersdorp to Randfontein): Risks are that spillage flows into Wonderfonteinspruit and Tweelopiespruit, which will threaten the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and the Cradle of Humankind. The Robinson Dam is now radioactive with uranium levels 40 000 times higher than normal levels and it is said to glow in the dark.
4. Central Basin (Germiston to Roodepoort, including Johannesburg): ERPM ceased pumping in 2008 and as of 22nd September 2010, the water level was 545m below the surface with an average daily rise over the past year of 0.59m. The danger is that we could see millions of litres of highly acidic mine water rising up under Johannesburg and, if left unchecked, it could spill out into its streets early in 2012. At risk would be locations such as Gold Reef City, Standard Bank, the Carlton Centre and many more.
So what does this mean to your company?
AMD is associated with low PH, high sulphate, elevated levels of heavy metals and radioactivity. It can negatively affect the quality of water resources. There is also the possibility of geological instability (such as sinkholes), seismic effects and the destruction of ecosystems and heritage sites.
Furthermore, the risks associated with human consumption include the contamination of shallow groundwater resources that are required for agricultural use and the possible decanting of contaminated water into regional rivers and/or the Vaal River, affecting the quality of drinking water. Companies operating in these areas could well experience a sharp rise in health problems amongst employees if the situation is not dealt with quickly.
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
While it is hoped that government and the mines will resolve the AMD issue before a crisis ensues, businesses should not bet their future on that. An effective business continuity plan is a crucial element in preparing for a disaster such as AMD, ensuring your company has the ability to continue operating no matter what the situation.
Specific actions may simply be limited to checking whether any of your premises are located in AMD risk areas. If they aren’t, then, for you, that should be the end of the issue. If they are then a greater exploration of the issue locally will be appropriate. In a worst case scenario it may be necessary to consider relocation from impacted areas.
In the meanwhile, the Parliamentary inter-Ministerial Committee on Acid Mine Drainage accepted a report on situation on 22nd February 2011. It recommends the immediate building of a series of pumping, treatment and monitoring stations with pumps in place under Johannesburg by March 2012. The budget for the remediation exercise is expected to be R1.2 billion. Environmentalists say this amount is a fraction of the billions needed
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I grew up on the Gold Field. Mining is in my family, and in my blood. I know and understand this situation, how it came about, but don't propose to know the solution. So whats the possible solution?

I just re- read the above, and it would seem that my idea is similar to the one above. I'm leaving my opinion below as I spent a lot of time thinking through it, and writing it down.R1.2 billion is not going to cover the cost, but so what if it's R5 billion? Still a bargain at the price.

Typically, and this has been said over and over for many years, the mines that operate in these areas should be held accountable. However, having said that, many no longer exist. Had the ruling governments of the time (During and post Apartheid) heeded the warnings, thay would have mandated the responsible minimg companies to lodge security to ensure that ths ongoing problem coild be addressed properly into the future.
Now we have a situation where many of the old mines, no longer operational, are being kept "open", with the sole purpose of managing this water problem. The cost is, in most cases, being borne by those operations that bought out the previous owners / merged with the previous owners, and they do so begrudgingly. It does not help that the current regime is not making a statement to the effect that these current incumbents must be held accountable and responsible.

A nodepth investigation needs to be conducted into how this problem can be reversed. It's not enough to just "manage" the current problem. Underground water will  not stop running. We need to find a way to "Plug" the wounds in these underground lakes, so that their contents stop spilling out into these unused mines, gradually filing up to the top, and leaking through fissures etc. in the rock, to our fresh water resources. I believe that with some investment, a way can be found to a) stop the water, or b) easily manage a pump station to retrieve the water (as far below the surface as possible) and treat it, removing as many of the chemicals / acids as possible, before dumping it into a purpose built dam. Over time, nature and settling would render the water pure, and it can then be used in farming operations, or as "grey water" for use in industrial applications.

Sound too easy, but maybe that's part of the problem, the powers that be view this as a bigger problem (to resolve) than maybe it is. And the cost? Well, based on the at\alternative, it is irrelevant. We cannot afford the poisoning of our natural water resources. I would be quite glad to see some of my tax money going in to resolving this issue permanently, and there is nothing wrong with a special tax on the current mining houses. After all, their profits are such that they can afford to pay to have their problems rectified.

"Simplistic" ? Maybe. But I know water is manageable. I know we have access to the type of technology required to control, and move the water to where we can treat it. I know we have the means, and technology to "purify" the water. And building a size able containment dam for long term storage shouldn't be a problem. So why don' they just get to it? And, if they do the purification properly, they don't even need a dam to store it - it can go straight into our rivers and flow down to the sea.

Just my simple opinion.
Salagatle!

3 comments:

Divemaster Dad said...

Actually, "Lynn" is a "he"... :-)

I think CSA are trying to scare the companies by drafting this sort of report. A good strategy? Not sure, but I guess we'll see.

Personally, I think it's more a case for Disaster Management to figure out (government, therefore it will take a while) than for companies to address, but I'm sure there are a couple of bits (like location of data centres in relation to the acid streams) that companies might want to consider...

Wreckless Euroafrican said...

Thanx DMDad, as usual, good input. But I don't think there are any DC's built around the areas where the acid water goes. Not unless the flooding of central JHB becomes a reality.
What is the real problem is that those who are now affected, and probably will be in future, are those who do not have a voice / financial clout. And therefore, nothing gets done.
Salagatle!

Divemaster Dad said...

Agreed...and the government will probably be even slower in advising those "unfortunates" that their shack/dwelling is built on/next to an acid stream floodplain.

There is a huge fear that the tunnels under Joburg (directly under some skyscrapers) city centre will also begin to leak acid water into the foundations and pilings of those buildings and bring them down over time. Again, government denies that it will be a problem, but then that same government's predecessor denied that HIV was a problem and this government's leader thinks he can wash HIV away with a shower...