WILD NATURE – POISONED AND SILENT
By Mariette Lieferink
John Jordi wrote: “In this particular part of the globe we have subdued the land, fenced in its creatures and harnessed its wild rivers. It was a massive task at first – foolhardy almost – but now we have emerged totally victorious. And it might be our trouble: our victory was too total. In places nature has capitulated leaving behind poisoned, lifeless streams; exhausted infertile soil; and each spring becomes more silent.” (The Star, March 10 1971)
This has become the legacy of gold and uranium mining since uranium has contaminated ground and surface water. When they investigated the Wonderspruitfontein area, the Water Research Commission (WRC) made a recommendation to the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) stating that: “The measured uranium content of many of the fluvial sediments in the Wonderfonteinspruit, including those off mine properties and therefore outside the boundaries of licensed sites, exceeds the exclusion limit for regulation by the National Nuclear Regulator. A decision is therefore necessary by the NNR, regarding a regulatory response to this problem.”
But the NNR did not respond to the uranium contamination. People most at risk were identified as being from informal settlements – those whose immune systems were already compromised by poor nutrition and HIV/Aids infections. These areas included Bekkersdal, Kutsong, Kagiso, Rietvallei, Toekomsrus and the towns of Randfontein, Carletonville, Fochville, Westonaria, Potchefstroom and Welverdiend.
Clean water is not merely a human need, it is a human right. For 120 years the impacts of the gold mining industry has had a detrimental affect on people through ecological degradation, health costs, loss of agricultural potential, dewatering, contamination of the surface and groundwater, atmospheric pollution and sinkhole formation, while increasing profits for shareholders. The mining industry should be liable for these costs.
The South African government has produced great reforms, including environmental laws. According to the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 1998: “The participation of all interested and affected parties in environmental governance must be promoted, and all people must have the opportunity to develop the understanding, skills and capacity necessary for achieving equitable and effective participation, and participation by vulnerable and disadvantaged persons must be ensured… Decisions must take into account the interests, needs and values of all interested and affected parties, and this includes recognizing all forms of knowledge, including traditional and ordinary knowledge… Community wellbeing and empowerment must be promoted through environmental education, the raising of environmental awareness, the sharing of knowledge and experience and other appropriate means…Decisions must be taken in an open and transparent manner, and access to information must be provided in accordance with the law…The vital role of women and youth in environmental management and development must be recognized and their full participation therein must be promoted.”
The NNR, as the protector of persons, property and the environment against nuclear damage, should provide information that is as complete and clear as possible. The Nuclear Energy Act, No 46 of 1999 states that: “Any person who, by virtue of information obtained in the course of any prospecting or mining operations or carrying out any scientific investigation or chemical or metallurgical process, or otherwise, has reason to believe that any source material is present at any place, must within 30 days after having developed the belief, submit to the Minister or any person designated by the Minister for that purpose, a written report on the matter, containing full particulars of the grounds on which the belief is based and of the place where the material may be present.”
In terms of Section 40 of the National Nuclear Regulator Act, No 47 of 1999, the Regulator must on the request of any person, make a record of nuclear accidents and incidents available to that person and no person is civilly or criminally liable or may be prejudiced or harassed on account of having disclosed, any information of a health or safety risk or failure to comply with a duty to the state or to the media.
This means that the people of South Africa should have the right to access information held by the NNR to ensure the environment is not harmful to health and well-being and to protect the environment for present and future generations. The South African public should also have access to administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.
It should then be reasonable to expect that the NNR do something about radioactivity in the Wonderfonteinspruit region. The NNR should enforce safety standards with compliance inspections and punitive measures against polluters discharging radioactive material. In the event of an accident, the NNR should also establish an emergency plan and ensure that any person who contaminates a site with radioactive material rehabilitates it.
The NNR Act covers ionizing radiation, the discarding of radioactive waste, that enriched uranium be declared restricted material and the management, storage and discarding of radioactive waste.
But the NNR has cast doubts on the credibility of a report conducted by the Water Research Commission (No. 1214/1/06, “An Assessment of Sources, Pathways, Mechanisms and Risks of Current and Potential Future Pollution of Water and Sediments in Gold-mining Areas of the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment” by Coetzee, Winde and Wade). This is despite the obvious effects that current and historic pollution have had on local communities, agriculture, disruption of water systems, fauna and flora, the aquatic biota and ecology.
Uranium and cadmium, known carcinogens, remain radioactive for centuries. People likely to suffer uranium contamination are mostly vulnerable and disadvantaged. The WRC Report stated that exposed populations would mainly be “residents in informal settlements with an impeded ability to cope with additional health risk, due to malnutrition and high rates of HIV/AIDS and the adverse effects on the immune system”. This is contrary to the spirit of NEMA which states: “Environmental justice must be pursued so that adverse environmental impacts shall not be distributed in such a manner as to unfairly discriminate against any person, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged persons.”
The WRC report expressed concerns about “uranium remobilisation” – the process by which uranium would re-enter water sources. Current conditions were said to be “not environmentally desirable in the medium to long term.” The Water Research Commission also emphasized the “limitations in the budget of this project”, and the lack of data available concerning low dose and long term exposure of humans to uranium and other contaminants.
In his book “Uranium Road – Questioning South Africa’s Nuclear Direction” Dr David Fig stated: “Exposure below pne sievert will probably leave no outward signs but there is damage to internal organs with exposures as low as 0,1 sievert. Long term effects, including infertility, neurological damage, cancer and birth defects, are associated with exposures as low as 0,02 sievert…These long term effects appear to be equally associated with single dose exposure or cumulative exposure over a period of time. Most authorities now believe that any exposure to high energy radiation carries the risk of long term health consequences. They believe that a significant proportion of cancers, birth defects and genetic abnormalities are due to exposure to radiation, either from naturally occurring sources or human activity…The conclusion from this is that there is no safe level of exposure. …the safe level of exposure has been continually adjusted downwards since people became aware of the dangers of radiation. It is now about one tenth of the original figure.”
The WRC report also said there was no safe limit for carcinogens. Compared with the global mean concentration of uranium in fresh water of 0,0004mg/l the maximum concentration reported in stream water of the Wonderfonteinspruit is up to 1 000 times above natural background levels. The maximal uranium concentration advised by the DWAF in water used for irrigation is 0,01 mg/l. The carcinogenic risk-quotient estimate for the surface water of the Wonderfonteinspruit is 2,22 and the chemical risk estimate for this water is 6,67.
Wonderfonteinspruit has been identified in a number of studies as a site of significant radioactive and other pollution, due to mining and processing of uraniferous gold ores. In 1991, 12 tonnes of uranium was estimated to enter watercourses annually. More than 100 000 tons of uranium were estimated to be present in tailings deposits.
The uranium concentration of these volumes of mine-water effluent was reported to be ten times the South African guideline level for ideal drinking water – more than 70 times the South African guideline level for irrigation and more than 30 times the level for drinking water determined by regulatory limits.
Due to their uranium concentration, tailings in the Far West Rand were seen to be a major potential source of uranium water pollution. As much as 24 tonnes of dissolved uranium was released into the environment from unlined tailings deposits alone. Draining directly into underlying aquifers or dewatered dolomite, seepage from such tailings was a major cause of water contamination that was difficult and costly to control.
About ten tonnes of particle-bound uranium were found to be flushed by stormwater into watercourses each year.And with many of the over one thousand sinkholes having been filled with uraniferous slimes material, these were also sources of uranium pollution.
Downstream from mining operations, sediments found in dams, wetlands, and the streambed of the Wonderfonteinspruit showed higher uranium concentrations – sometimes even more than those in tailings deposits and other primary sources of uranium pollution.
Despite generally acting as sinks for dissolved uranium transported in stream water, such sediments might release uranium back into the water column and turn from sinks into secondary sources of uranium. The capacity of sediments to act as sinks for dissolved uranium might be exceeded and all dissolved uranium be transported downstream towards Boskop Dam – the main reservoir of the Potchefstroom Municipality.
Gold Mines discharged 50 tonnes of uranium into nearby streams every year. The natural background level of uranium was stated to be 0,2 – 3mg/kg. The local background at Klerkskraal Dam was over1 mg/kg. Mined reefs contained elevated concentrations of uranium – up to 5.8 per cent. Sediments in slime and evaporate filled dams contained very high uranium concentrations – in Upper Wonderfonteinspruit – over 1 000 mg/kg in places. Sediments in the wetlands downstream from Kagiso contained uranium concentrations over 100 mg/kg. Sediments in the lower Wonderfonteinspruit contained uranium concentrations that were as much as 500 mg/kg or more.
Wonderfonteinspruit samples were found to exceed not only natural background concentrations, but also levels of regulatory concern for cobalt, zinc, arsenic, cadmium and uranium, with uranium and cadmium showing the highest risk coefficient. In downstream farm dams uranium concentrations were 900 mg/kg. Uranium in fluvial sediment could be remobilised and transported downstream.
The primary organ at risk from uranium chemical toxicity is the kidney, while organs at risk from chronic radiological toxicity include the lymph nodes and the bone. There is no lower limit for acceptable radiological risk and recent research suggests that there is also no clear lower threshold for chemical toxicity. (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation – UNSCEAR, 1988)
The carcinogenic risk quotient for uranium in the surface water of the Wonderfonteinspruit is 2,22. The chemical toxicity risk quotient for the uranium in the surface water of the Wonderfonteinspruit is 6,67. Both the numbers are above 1,00 meaning that there is a risk of ill-health effects by drinking water from contaminated streams in the Wonderfonteinspruit catchment.
Heavy metal contents in the catchment significantly exceed the European Union guidelines. Since some of the sources of pollution are not due to direct discharge, but rather to run-off from contaminated sites and groundwater recharge, this hazard will remain after the closure of mines. The closure of mines and cessation of pumping could result in drying out of the sediments of the Wonderfonteinspruit. Ongoing monitoring of the situation was therefore required. Samples from the Potchefstroom waterworks at times exceeded levels for the chemical toxicity of uranium.
It is surprising that the NNR has discredited a report that has caused indignation among international environmental justice groups. The findings should only be set aside if evidence to the contrary were produced. The NNR merely said they were conducting their own investigation and would make the findings available to the public. When? The people in the affected area live with this daily hazard.
During apartheid a higher premium was placed on the gold mining industry and its profits and gold mines were allowed to overexploit and pollute the surface of the land and limited water resources. The Jordaan Commission Report (1960) showed that uranium contamination was partly due to co-operation among the United States, Britain and South Africa to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.
But in post apartheid South Africa, the NNR has still failed to enforce compliance in terms of available laws and licenses through prosecution or sanctions. The NNR’s perceived protection of the gold mining companies has increased benefits to the polluters but led to the loss of resources and ill-health for affected communities.
The protection of the people and the environment – not the interests of overseas investors and shareholders in mining companies – should be the NNR’s highest priority.
Mariette Liefferink is an environmental justice activist
There are many reports on the impacts of mining on the Wonderfonteinspruit catchment and its people. They include: The Jordaan Commission Report of 1960, Radioactivity and the Leakage of Radioactive Waste Associated with Witwatersrand Gold and Uranium Mining by Coetzee, H. 1995,. Radioactivity Study on Sediments in a Dam in the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment by Coetzee, H., Wade, P., Ntsume, G. & Jordaan. W. 2002, Reliance on Existing Wetlands for Pollution Control Around the Witwatersrand Gold/Uranium Mines in South Africa – Are They Sufficient? by Coetzee, H., Wade, P. & Winde, F. 2002, Contamination of Wetlands by Witwatersrand Gold Mines – Processes and the Economic Potential of Gold in Wetlands by Coetzee, H., Venter.J. & Ntsume, G. 2005, Report on the Radioactivity Monitoring Programme in the Mooi River (Wonderfonteinspruit) Catchment. IWQS. 1999. Report No. N/C22/00/RPQ/2399. Pretoria: Institute for Water Quality Studies, Overview of Radioactivity in Water Sources: Uranium, Radium and Thorium. Kempster, P.L., Van Vliet, H.R., Looser, U., Parker, I., Silberbauer, M.J. & Du Toit, P. 1996. IWQS-No:N/0000/00/PRQ/0196. Pretoria: Institute for Water Quality Studies, Tier 1 Risk Assessment of Selected Radionuclides in Sediments of the Mooi River Catchment*. Wade, P.W., Woodbourne, S., Morris, W.M., Vos, P. & Jarvis, N.W. 2002. WRC Project No. K5/1095. Pretoria: Water Research Commission, The Significance of Groundwater-Stream Interactions and Fluctuating Stream Chemistry on Waterborne Uranium Contamination of Streams – A Case Study from a Gold Mining Site in South Africa. Winde.F. & Van Der Walt, I.J. 2004. In Journal of Hydrology, 287. Pp 178-196 and Impacts of Gold-mining Activities on Water Availability and Quality in the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment. Winde, F. 2005. In Coetzee, H. (Ed.) An Assessment of Current and Future Water-pollution Risk with Application to the Mooirivierloop (Wonderfonteinspruit). WRC Report No. K5/1214. Pp 14-38. Pretoria: Water Research Commission.
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