Secrets require much time and effort to keep under wraps. Just ask ArcelorMittal South Africa which, nine years later, continues to fend off demands for sight of its environmental masterplan and may now face a request under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia).
If ArcelorMittal SA is sitting on a problem, then the government appears to be sitting on a predicament of impossible proportions as it decides how to prevent further decant of acid mine drainage (AMD) from derelict gold mines of the Witwatersrand western basin, and halt the rise of water in the central and eastern basins. AMD occurs when water combines with oxygen and pyrites in the ore body of unused mines to release a toxic mix of heavy metals. In the uranium-bearing ore of the Witwatersrand, it is radioactive too.
The state has so far kept under wraps various reports by a team of experts appointed last year by an interministerial committee on AMD. This led a group of 43 environmental groups to submit an application under Paia last week.
However, the Department of Water Affairs says the report will be available once approved by the cabinet. In the meantime, civil society groups are concerned at a lack of transparency and consultation, pointing out that since the committee was formed, millions of litres of acid mine water have decanted into streams connected to the Vaal and Crocodile River systems.
The department itself acknowledges that heavy rains have contributed to more surface water entering ground water systems, resulting in more AMD decanting into the Tweelopies Spruit on the western basin and raising the rate of AMD rise in the central and eastern basins.
But why is it still so secretive about releasing the findings of its probe?
Outspoken water scientist Anthony Turton, who was suspended by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 2008 after raising the alarm about South Africa’s pending water crisis, says the government is in a tight corner. “They’re damned if they do (release the report), and they’re damned if they don’t.”
He believes that once the report is public, the state will have to acknowledge it has not acted timeously to prevent AMD reaching the surface. On the other hand, if it moves too fast, it opens up a can of worms around liability.
Gold mining companies still operating on the Witwatersrand favour an alkalki-barium-calcium technology to treat AMD water, but their detractors accuse them of punting a lower-cost technology simply to secure closure certificates. Hazardous waste from treating AMD water would be dumped in their slime dams, transferring the problem to the next rainy season.
Some believe a more elegant solution lies is diluting the salts from the AMD water with ion-exchange technology. Instead of being dumped, the waste could find application as a molten salt for South Africa’s future concentrating solar power needs.
The Department of Water Affairs entered the fray yesterday with a recommendation to reuse treated effluent from gold mines and specifically to conduct feasibility studies on the desalination of AMD water.
If this is an indicator of the solution the interministerial committee may propose, then it seems the government’s little secrets have already started to leak. And not a moment too soon.