It’s all about the money

The haz­ardous min­ing by-prod­uct raises two ques­tions – who’s to blame and who should pay

CityPress - - Business - DE­WALD VAN RENS­BURG de­wald.vrens­burg@city­press.co.za

The acid mine drainage cri­sis is go­ing to cost some­one a lot of money, but prob­a­bly not the peo­ple who caused it. The “pol­luter pays” prin­ci­ple was next to im­pos­si­ble to ap­ply to the acid mine drainage prob­lem in a ret­ro­spec­tive way, said Mar­ius Keet, chief di­rec­tor for mine wa­ter man­age­ment at the depart­ment of wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion.

“We have tried. Ac­cord­ing to our le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive some years ago, it just was not pos­si­ble.

“On which doors do you knock? Where do you go to? Who are these peo­ple?

“We all know that we have lega­cies in­her­ited from the late 1800s,” said Keet.

“The idea is not to go back, the idea is to be more proac­tive in terms of what will hap­pen in fu­ture,” he said this week at the launch of a book­let on mine re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Ma­ri­ette Li­ef­ferink of the Fed­er­a­tion for a Sus­tain­able En­vi­ron­ment.

Li­ef­ferink said the ar­gu­ments against ret­ro­spec­tive li­a­bil­ity for acid mine drainage are overblown.

“There is a com­plete data­base of mines at the Coun­cil of Geo­science. The ret­ro­spec­tiv­ity of the pol­luter-pays prin­ci­ple is an in­te­gral part of the Na­tional Wa­ter Man­age­ment Act and the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment Act. We would ad­vo­cate for ret­ro­spec­tiv­ity.”

Find­ing past pol­luters would also help the cur­rently ex­ist­ing in­dus­try, she sug­gested.

“Most of the last-men-stand­ing mines con­sider it un­palat­able and in­equitable that they should be li­able for pol­lu­tion caused over 150 years.”

In 2004, acid mine drainage started de­cant­ing out of old mines on the West Rand. Mines need to be con­stantly de­wa­tered and, as mines have closed, pump­ing has ceased in many deep gold shafts, leav­ing them to get flooded. This wa­ter is highly acidic and dis­solves haz­ardous met­als, in­clud­ing the ura­nium that is a com­mon by-prod­uct in Wit­wa­ter­srand gold ore.

THE STATE OF PLAY

The agency im­ple­ment­ing the short- and long-term acid mine drainage so­lu­tions is the Trans-Cale­don Tun­nel Au­thor­ity.

It has three plants that pump acid mine drainage from the ground, par­tially treat it and dis­charge it into Gaut­eng’s river sys­tems.

Be­tween 150 and 200 me­gal­itres of acid mine drainage wa­ter pass through these per day, cost­ing just be­low R6 000 per me­gal­itre, or roughly R1 mil­lion per day.

Par­tial treat­ment means adding lime to neu­tralise the wa­ter’s pH level. This makes most of the dan­ger­ous met­als pre­cip­i­tate in a sludge that has to be dis­posed of. The re­sult­ing wa­ter is still con­tam­i­nated with es­pe­cially sul­phates, but can be re­leased into rivers.

“At least it is a lot bet­ter than what you can ex­pect when you have it freely de­cant­ing,” said Keet.

Wa­ter lev­els in the cen­tral and eastern basins of the Wit­wa­ter­srand are now fall­ing in­stead of ris­ing.

In the crit­i­cal western basin, the ris­ing wa­ter has at least been slowed down, said Keet.

“It has not stopped, but we’ve def­i­nitely re­duced it.” The next step is to treat that wa­ter to a level where it can be sold to in­dus­trial and ul­ti­mately res­i­den­tial users.

“There needs to be a par­a­digm shift in South Africa about not be­ing able to drink acid mine drainage. You can treat any qual­ity wa­ter to any qual­ity wa­ter, the cost is the is­sue,” said Keet.

The de­sign of the long-term so­lu­tion de­pended on who the buy­ers of the wa­ter ended up be­ing, he said.

The long-term so­lu­tion is meant to be op­er­a­tional by 2021 and the con­trac­tor to do an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment will “hope­fully” be ap­pointed within the next month, said Keet.

THE ECO­NOM­ICS OF ACID MINE DRAINAGE

Ideally, the long-term acid mine drainage so­lu­tion should pay for it­self by pro­duc­ing saleable wa­ter and pos­si­bly some min­eral by-prod­ucts. How­ever, at cur­rent wa­ter prices, this is far-fetched.

The price to beat would be Rand Wa­ter’s tar­iff for wa­ter from the Vaal River – roughly R4.50 per kilo­litre. That is more or less im­pos­si­ble, even with cheaper, new treat­ment tech­nolo­gies in­stead of the stan­dard op­tion – the elec­tric­i­ty­in­ten­sive de­sali­na­tion process called re­verse os­mo­sis. Min­tek, the state’s sci­ence coun­cil for min­eral pro­cess­ing, is punt­ing a process it calls Savmin, which re­lies on a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion that uses less power. Min­tek gen­eral man­ager Alan McKen­zie said it can treat acid mine drainage at any­thing be­tween R5 and R15 per kilo­litre, “de­pend­ing on the wa­ter you start with”.

A breakeven cost of roughly R20 per kilo­litre is in the ball­park, but this is be­fore any costs associated with dis­pos­ing of the waste prod­ucts or retic­u­la­tion of the wa­ter to reach cus­tomers, said McKen­zie. Johannesburg Wa­ter charges more than R30 to big wa­ter users, so, hy­po­thet­i­cally, di­rect sup­ply to a large in­dus­trial user could be cost com­pet­i­tive, he said.

“I don’t want to say wa­ter is too cheap now, but ... some­where in the fu­ture, where tech­nolo­gies im­prove and wa­ter gets more ex­pen­sive, you could sell wa­ter and break even,” said Keet.

“The money has to come from some­where and un­for­tu­nately, at the end of the day, it is prob­a­bly go­ing to be gov­ern­ment. I just don’t see an­other way around it,” said McKen­zie.

STOP­PING THE DAM­AGE

The depart­ment pub­lished a new mine wa­ter man­age­ment pol­icy pa­per last week that makes some far-reach­ing pro­pos­als – at least for the mines that re­main. Among the pro­pos­als are re­stric­tions on sell­ing old mines to evade clo­sure costs.

The prob­lem of mines go­ing into liq­ui­da­tion with no fund­ing in place for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is an­other tar­get and an en­vi­ron­men­tal levy on mines is be­ing mooted.

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