06 September 2010

Acid mine water crisis in JHB

The inter-ministerial committee (IMC) dealing with Gauteng's acid mine water crisis has called on some of South Africa's top experts to help find a solution to the problem.

The inter-ministerial committee (IMC) dealing with Gauteng's acid mine water crisis has called on some of South Africa's top experts to help find a solution to the problem. 

Briefing the media in Cape Town, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica said that at the IMC's first meeting last week, it was agreed to appoint such a team. 

The IMC is co-chaired by Sonjica and Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. The other members are Presidency National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. 

Sonjica said "rational, sound and targeted interventions were needed to deal with the short-term challenges" of acid mine water. Such challenges include that acid mine water is rapidly rising up through a network of old mining tunnels in the so-called central basin under Johannesburg, and will start overflowing within the next 17 months if nothing is done to stop it. 

Short-term interventions

Sonjica said the team was drawn from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Water Research Commission, the Council for Geoscience, and the departments of science and technology and water and environmental affairs. 

"They will assess what has been done by various institutions and assess solutions and technology that is needed to address the problem. They will also interrogate and assess viability and cost of critical short-term interventions, integrate lasting medium- and long-term solutions, and explore possible partnerships with the private sector," she said. 

The experts were expected to return to the IMC within six weeks,  with a report the committee could take to Cabinet to "indicate the sort of resources we're going to need", she said. 

Among the urgent decisions which have to be made are where the government is going to find R218 million for a new pump station and pipeline, and an upgrade to an existing waterworks - facilities which are essential to treat the acid mine water. 

There is only R14 million available for this in the current budget. 

Further, the lead time for a new pump station is 13 months, which leaves the government with just under four months in which to act. 

Rainy season on the way

Senior water affairs official Marius Keet said the acid water in the central basin was currently rising at a rate of 0.35 metres a day. It is understood this will increase  to 0.9m a day during the Highveld's coming rainy season. 

Keet said the recommended "environmental critical level" for the rising acid mine water was 150m below surface. The environmental impacts, should it rise above this level, include earth tremors and the possible formation of sink-holes. 

The problem of acid mine drainage (AMD) is not confined to the Witwatersrand region. Other affected areas include the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal coalfields, and around the copper mines near O'Kiep in the Northern Cape. 

AMD is associated with low pH, high sulphate levels and elevated levels of heavy metals. It has been described as "the biggest-ever environmental challenge" South Africa faces. 

5 million litres uncontrolled

Acid mine water has been overflowing from the western basin - located below the Krugersdorp-Randfontein area - since 2002. 

Keet said the outflow was currently 20 million litres a day, of which 12 to 15 million litres was being "partially" treated by local mines. 

"The other five million litres is running uncontrolled, but it's going through a passive treatment system - there is a wetland, which the mines have diverted the acid mine drainage to," he said. 

Among the department's aims is that by 2014, all acid mine water originating from the Witwatersrand must be treated - either to be used directly in industry, or for drinking. 

Sonjica said the treatment of such water presented an opportunity for investors. "We're hoping to use this to get the mines on board," she said. - (Sapa, September 2010)

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