AMD needs to be uppermost on every miners agenda - By Andrea Zeelie
AMD needs to be uppermost on every miner’s agenda
Companies involved in the extractive industries have long been accustomed to factoring environmental impacts and risks into their operational and business plans. For the past decade and a half, South African miners have had a new threat to add to that equation.
Acid mine drainage, commonly referred to as AMD, has been an impending
environmental disaster in South Africa since 1996. The term, which is gaining increasing exposure in the media every day, is used to describe the outpouring of acid water from gold or coal mines, which becomes acidic when sulphide-expectant material is exposed to oxygen and water. The polluted water flows into tributaries and dams, disrupting natural processes. The Witswatersrand Mining Basin is the world’s single largest gold reserve, and has been actively mined for the last century. This basin is the primary site of the water crisis, and is impacting both the Vaal and Crocodile River systems, with tributaries that flow throughout the country. Fears are growing that the Limpopo river system could be next, also making this a concern for neighbouring countries. The acidic water has increased levels of chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive particles, which threaten entire ecosystems. Importantly, acid mine drainage is also hazardous to water security, and thus threatens the health and livelihood of many South Africans. South Africa is a water stressed country, and AMD comprises an already precarious supply.
AMD is a complex problem, which requires a multi-faceted response covering remediation, and prevention and mitigation of further impacts. The primary treatment options include carbonate neutralization (using mass quantities of calcium carbonate to balance acidic water), ion exchange (isolating elements from acidic water), precipitation of metal (separation of solids and liquids), constructed wetlands (holding treatment pens), and active treatment with aeration (using air to expedite the equalizing process). South African scientists, academics, and business entrepreneurs have devised several native solutions which would fix the problem, with long term economic gain. Emerging local solutions either combine the previously mentioned techniques, or utilise new technologies involving one or more of these methods. Alternatives involving the repurposing or reuse of metals are not only sustainable, but also potentially profitable. Although fraught with ethical and acceptance issues, desalination or purification of contaminated water would increase its scarce supply.
The South African government has been slow to enact any definitive solutions, even after a study published by the United Association of South Africa Trade Unions revealed the potentially devastating impact on the economy. A mere 1% decrease in water quality and usability would translate into 200,000 lost jobs, and an increase of ZAR18billion in government spending. The recent cabinet shake up and the instatement of a new Water Affairs minister could, however, mean that South Africa may be poised to make AMD a real focus. If no immediate action is taken, polluted water will decant in Johannesburg in 2014, as the water currently lies just 500m below the surface, rising between0,3 m and 0,9 m daily. Some commentators believe that a tipping point has been reached, and that a future disaster can no longer be avoided.
Inaction is not due to a lack of solutions, but rather to the lack of funding. The most recent estimate of a short-term cleanup is ZAR 218million, with neither Government nor the mining sector eager to pay. Legacy problems plague both players, with the Government and industry pushing responsibility elsewhere. (Given that both camps are seemingly loathe to accept responsibility, it may be interesting to observe how long it takes for AMD to become a pawn in the nationalisation debate). Mining in South African is becoming increasingly expensive and less profitable, creating even less of an incentive to act decisively in the present, for some future gain in an industry with shrinking planning horizons. Government, in turn, is severally understaffed and under skilled – currently officials responsible for mine regulating and water pollution compliance number only a third of the required complement of staff.
South Africa is not the only country having to deal with acid mine drainage. AMD is a naturally occurring phenomenon, but is aggravated by mining processes. This means that, while some level of water contamination may occur in the absence of mining activity, miners bear a particular responsibility for the rapidly unfolding situation which prevails now.
This raises the question: What are miners to do? Clearly, the lack of leadership from Government does not absolve individual companies from the moral imperative for urgent intervention. Whether this intervention takes the form of remediation, prevention or mitigation may depend on the life cycles of a particular miner’s assets; indeed, it most likely will require a combination of approaches. Strong leadership is needed to establish suitable empowered working groups within each company, with a time-bound mandate to assess, evaluate and intervene. In an age of increasing transparency and corporate accountability, shareholders are not likely to be forgiving of virtually unquantifiable future shocks to the income statement and balance sheet.
In essence, then, immediate action on AMD is not only an altruistic or ecological response, but a business imperative. AMD needs to be uppermost on the agenda of every risk management forum of every miner. Government has shown itself to be unable or unwilling to resolve the impasse that exists between competing ministries, be they Mineral & Energy Affairs, Water Affairs or whoever. Miners simply cannot afford to wait for some cohesive policy position, and political will, to emerge over time. South Africa’s citizens, and their own shareholders, need them to act without delay.
Andrea Zeelie is pursuing her Masters in Public Health in Health Economics at the University of Cape Town. The focus of her dissertation is the political economy of acid mine drainage in South Africa.