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Polluted mine water under scrutiny

Allan Seccombe | Mon, 22 Feb 2010 14:20

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[] -- SOUTH AFRICA’S Department of Water Affairs is forming a public-private partnership (PPP) entity with the country’s gold miners to address the potential environmental catastrophe posed by acid mine drainage (AMD) from defunct and operational mines on the Witwatersrand.

The primary candidate for this partnership has to be the Western Utilities Corporation (WUC), which has been working on the problem for years and has been in talks with the DWA and Rand Water, the distributor of water, about a business proposal. WUC is owned by its AIM-traded parent company Watermark Global.

It would appear WUC’s proposal last year to treat AMD and sell clean water has run foul of government concerns about the ownership of water, something that vests in the state. A PPP would be the solution by creating a non-profit entity that would treat polluted water and sell it to Rand Water.

There are four compartments within the Wits Basin, the world’s richest single known source of gold. Those have been mined over the past century, creating massive underground voids that miners kept dry while working there but have been allowed to fill with water when mining stopped.

The water interacts with bare rock, absorbing sulphates and heavy metals, like iron, manganese and nickel and uranium. This polluted water is called acid mine drainage (AMD) and poses serious environmental threats if the level of this water in old mines rises to the ground water table or overflows or decants from shafts.

The smallest basin, the West Rand Basin, decanted in 2002 and now releases 15 megalitres (Ml) of water/day. Mining companies are treating that water, extracting the heavy minerals. But the sulphates, or salts, remain behind. That water is released into the Tweelopies Spruit, a process that’s attracted the wrath of environmentalists infuriated by the damage to the water course.

WUC late last year released a stark warning for authorities: Take decisive action on two of the other three basins or face disaster because polluted water could swamp towns, rivers and farms.

The Central Basin will decant 60Ml/day in little more than two years; and the Eastern Basin could decant 82Ml/day within three years if pumping there stops.

According WUC’s comments late last year it will take a year to build the plant to treat 155Ml/day of mine water pumped in from the three basins, generating 75Ml of potable quality water and 80Ml of industrial grade water for mines and other industries.

The by-product of elemental sulphur can be sold to chemical companies to make sulphuric acid, which South Africa imports. There are potential agreements that can be struck on the waste extracted from the water, WUC has said.

WUC has estimated the cost of the project at R1.5bn.

Mining companies – including DRDGOLD, Rand Uranium, Central Rand Gold and, Mintails – would contribute R500m worth of infrastructure, tailings facilities and land and, of course, as much polluted water feedstock as WUC wants.

There were no details in a 11 February DWA media release of who is involved in the PPP, but it would be fair to assume WUC is foremost in those talks. It has the buy-in of a number of mining companies who are prepared to make infrastructure available and it has selected what it has identified as the best technology to clean up the water to high standards set by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

Other groups might be in talks with DWA, the regulatory body governing water, but they’re likely to offer only a technological solution rather than WUC’s comprehensive strategy for which an extensive amount of research and study.

There was an interesting line in the DWA release. “The issue is further complicated by the fact that some of the mines in the affected area are no longer operational or ownerless, making it difficult to enforce compliance. This requires that the state takes liability in the interest of the public, especially when the matter has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.”

DWA said the non-profit entity would take “technical and operational responsibility” for addressing AMD. The model fits the WUC proposal very neatly, with a central water collection point where the water will be treated to clean it and offer the water for re-use. WUC has also spoken of this cleaned water relieving pressure on existing supplies, something DWA mentioned in its release.

“This will involve a contract between government and the mining houses as funding of the entity will in as far as possible take into account apportionment of liabilities between both parties,” DWA said.

Some market watchers reckon this is the first time the government or DWA has acknowledged its responsibility and liability towards cleaning up the problem.

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