Talk of the acid mine drainage problem in South Africa is increasing as the time to prevent a catastrophe shrinks.
The United Nations says acid mine drainage (AMD) is the biggest environmental threat facing the world, second only to global warming.
“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,” says ContinuitySA’s Lynn Jackson.
“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.”
While there are many areas in South Africa that may feel the AMD impact over time, to explain the extent of the threat Jackson suggests examining the Witwatersrand, which is divided into four underground basins:
* 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.
* 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.
* Western Basin (Krugersdorp to Randfontein) – the 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.
* Central Basin (Germiston to Roodepoort, including Johannesburg) – ERPM ceased pumping in 2008, and as of 22 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 people 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 and the Carlton Centre.
What does this mean for businesses?
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 management (BCM) plan is a crucial element in preparing for a disaster such as AMD, ensuring companies have the ability to continue operating no matter what the situation.
In the meanwhile, the Parliamentary inter-Ministerial Committee on Acid Mine Drainage accepted a report on situation on 22 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.