Mining firms cautioned against AMD law suits

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cape Town - Mining companies shouldn't believe they can duck legal action against them when it comes to acid mine drainage (AMD) simply because of the complex nature of the problem, the chairman of the National Assembly's portfolio committee on water and environmental affairs, Johnny de Lange, cautioned today.

AMD, which can pollute the water table and cause earth tremors, is the result of water seeping up from abandoned or closed mine shafts.

Mining companies contend that it is difficult to apportion blame because of the large number of firms having been involved in mining on the reef - as far back as the 1880s - with some of them having since closed.

Responding to presentations by mining companies to the committee on how they would tackle the problem, de Lange said legal action against mining firms on AMD may have failed in the past, but this didn't mean it couldn't succeed in the future.

New mining companies should also not be absolved from responsibility because they would have come to know of the problem when they bought the land or when they conducted due diligence studies, he said.

The DA's Gareth Morgan agreed with de Lange, saying mines that owned properties on AMD-affected land had to accept responsibility, but acknowledged that trying to apportion responsibility for AMD that each mine should take on would be difficult.

In a presentation on behalf of gold mining companies active on the Witwatersrand, John Munro, chief executive of Rand Uranium, said AMD was essentially an "ownerless" problem.

He pointed out that all legal action against mining companies in the area in last six years had failed, because the long history of mining in the area made it difficult to say who was to blame.

It was because of the complex nature of the problem that any legal action against companies deemed responsible for AMD, was a "fruitless waste of taxpayers money" or resources, he argued.

Because of these legal actions, each mining company on the Witwatersrand had developed its own factual position on what it had and hadn't done over the last few decades when it came to the area of AMD.

Munro said the best solution was to find an economically viable solution - to turn AMD into a scare resource, namely potable water.

However, the solution had been rejected by the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs and the Inter-ministerial Committee report on AMD last year, which he believed diminished the opportunity for mines to contribute a solution to AMD.

Munro said after sewage, AMD was the next best source of potable water - adding that it was cheaper to transform into drinking water than many other sources.

He said the price of potable water had increased by 25 percent in the last two years, which had made grey water more attractive for industries.

Munro said he recognised that the neutralisation of AMD water - which was the current method used by mining companies to treat AMD and involved extracting metals from the affected water - was not the perfect long-term solution, but that at present, it was the most effective.

Rand Uranium's plant, which pumps out underground AMD water, cost about R2.5 million a month to run.

Munro said the company, which does not mine on the Western Basin, but owns property in the area, wanted to expand pumping operations, as it is only able to extract about 50 percent of the AMD water at the moment.

Jaco Schoeman of the Western Utilities Companies, a non-profit company set up by mining companies on the Western Basin to tackle AMD, said mining houses are using AMD-processed water to run operations.

Schoeman said of the 155 mega litres of AMD that would be expected to be produced daily by all of the three basins - a maximum of 60 mega litres could be used by the mines in those basins.

He said the mining companies had looked at refineries in Germiston and Sasol in Sasolburg to gauge the interest of industries in using AMD-processed water.

Turning to the history and extent of the problem of AMD on the Witwatersrand, Munro said the Western Basin (around Krugersdorp) was the first of the three basins - western, central and eastern - where AMD problems were spotted, after mining operations ceased there in the 1990s.

But he said AMD was now also a threat in Central and Eastern basins as well.

The larger central basin is expected to overflow in about two years and pumps had also stopped extracting water from Eastern Basin, which meant AMD could begin to cause problems there too.

Munro said the Western Basin currently produces about 15 mega litres of AMD water a day that overflows onto the surface.

However, he said the problem would be worse on the Central Basin and Eastern Basin, which are expected to produce about 60 mega litres and 100 mega litres of AMD a day, respectively.

He said mining firms could at present not keep up with the temporary treatment of AMD water and that the high level of summer rainfall had only worsened the rate of overflow on the Western Basin.

De Lange said when solutions start coming on the most effective treatment of AMD, any need by community members or the government to seek legal action against mining firms would subside.