Water Affairs in race against time to tackle AMD

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cape Town - The Department of Water Affairs is racing against the clock to put out tender documents in the coming days for the construction and upgrading of water treatment plants to tackle acid mine drainage (AMD).

In a report back to the National Assembly's portfolio committee on water and environmental affairs, the department and Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) outlined several steps that they have been taking to treat affected water now decanting from the Western Basin. They also outlined what they have done to stop rising water in two other basins, which if action isn't taken, might reach the surface as early as August next year.

The department, through TCTA -- which was given a directive by the Minister of Water Affairs Edna Molewa in April to tackle AMD -- was to start with an immediate solution for the Western Basin between November and December by upgrading Rand Uranium's existing treatment plant, so that the amount of treated water could be trebled to 36 mega litres.

Rand Uranium has agreed to fund a third of the operating costs.

Once heavy metals were removed from the water and the acidity of the water lowered, the water would be discharged in the Tweelopiespruit.

But committee chairperson Johnny de Lange expressed concern that the department might not be able to meet its timeline of awarding tenders for the building or upgrading of treatment plants and pipes for the three basins, as any decision on awarding the contracts may likely have to go to Cabinet because the costs for the work would run into billions of rands.

The immediate costs of upgrading and constructing new sludge plants and laying pipes for the three affected basins would amount to R924 million, while a further R385 million a year would be needed to operate the four solutions, TCTA's executive manager of projects and implementation, Johann Claassens, said.

A request for funding of R924 million has already been submitted by the department to the National Treasury. 

However, Claassens said to speed things up, the agency would also request that Molewa exempt the agency from some of the requirements of the National Water Act, as the processes that needed to be followed could take up to two years - time which the country didn't have if it is to successfully tackle AMD.

Marius Keet, the department's acting director of institutional establishment for Gauteng, said TCTA had concluded a due diligence review for all three basins on July 7 and had conceptualised a short-term treatment for each basin. This included the setting up of high-density sludge plants and pipelines.

He said the department had already engaged with several mines in the central basin that had expressed interest in using treated acid mine drainage water.

The department had also put in place a monitoring team to track acid mine drainage.

The affected AMD water in the central basin was currently 415m from the surface and was expected to reach the surface between August next year and March 2013. Affected water in the eastern basin was 628m from the surface and would reach the surface in December 2013.

Claassens said the plan to tackle AMD in the short-term will see TCTA sinking submersible pumps and concrete pipes into the three basins to stem the rising water.

The aim is to pump enough water out of the respective basins so that it is at safe distance below the surface, which is 165m below the surface for the Western Basin, 186m for the Central Basin and 290m for the Eastern Basin.

Claassens said to tackle AMD on the Western Basin, a new high-density sludge plant is expected to be commissioned in August next year in Randfontein East.

The plant is expected to process between 25 and 30 mega litres a day, which would reduce the water to a safe depth by June 2013.

The treated water would be piped to Tweelopiespruit, ensuring less seepage than the channel currently proposed for the immediate solution.

To deal with the impending threat of AMD on the Central Basin, a new high-density sludge plant would be commissioned by August next year, at the South West Vertical Shaft, with a capacity to process 84 mega litres a day.

Treated water would be piped to Eslburgspruit.

On the Eastern Basin, a new high-density sludge plant to be set up next to Grootvlei No 3 shaft - with treated water piped to the Blesbokspruit - is planned to come on line in June 2014.

Keet said the department has rejected the WUC proposal because of concerns that any subsidy paid to an entity would raise audit concerns if it wasn't put out on tender.

He said the other problem was that between 60% and 70% of the mining area on the Western Basin, to which Western Utilities Corporation's proposal is focused, is ownerless and could therefore raise concerns that the department was unfairly favouring the company, which is a subsidiary of Watermark Global. 

De Lange also laid into a departmental official for failing to renew directives which expired at the end of last year, which the department uses to hold mines responsible for AMD. 

However, Keet said the challenge was if the department issued mines with directives, they may refuse to assist the government in tackling AMD while the matter was brought to court. 

He singled out a recent directive issued by the department against Mogale Gold over AMD, where after receiving the directive, the mine stopped pumping affected water.

De Lange also berated the department's acting director general of policy and regulation, Mbangiseni Nepfumbada, for failing to attend today's portfolio committee meeting, adding that this was "totally and utterly unacceptable", particularly because the department's top officials had already failed to attend portfolio committee meetings a number of times.

De Lange asked the department to get Nepfumbada to put it in writing why he was unable to attend today's meeting. - BuaNews

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