The devious and devastating Acid Mine Drainage

Introduction

By making use of the theories presented by Poul Holm et al. in their article, ‘Humanities for the Environment – A Manifesto for research and action’ (2015) as well theories presented by Shelby Grant and Mary Lawhon in their article, ‘Reporting on rhinos: analysis of the newspaper coverage of rhino poaching’ (2014), this post aims to address the chronic issue of Acid Mine Drainage in South Africa. Three articles are used to provide critique on how the media reports on such environmental issues.

WHO AND WHAT ARE THE DRIVERS OF CHANGE? WHAT IS HAPPENING? WHAT CAN BE DONE? HOW TO GET IT DONE?
– Acid rock drainage is exacerbated by large-scale earth disturbances characteristic of mining. Polluted water from old mining areas flows into various streams/rivers.

– Areas where the earth has been disturbed by e.g construction sites/ subdivisions creates acid rock drainage.

– Other large construction activities impact the flow of the polluted water.

– Currently millions of litres of AMD are still flowing into streams connected to both the Vaal and Crocodile River and groundwater systems.

– The flow of AMD into South Africa’s surface and ground water systems is having devastating consequences that are both far-reaching and long-term. These consequences include degrading the quality of our water systems, poisoning of food crops, endangering human health, and the destruction of wildlife and eco-systems, infrastructure and heritage sites. – Implement strict legislation to decrease the environmental impact.

– Neutralisation; adding lime to AMD water which causes the heavy metals to “fall out” of treated water, before it is pumped to a natural water system.

– Controlled placement of acid-generating waste

– Diversion of surface water flowing towards the site of pollution.

– Prevention of groundwater infiltration into the pollution site.

– Mining houses need to start standing true to their environmental policies and these need to be actively policed every few months or monthly by government.

– Government needs to fix what need be, with regards to polluted water sources and those contaminated by Uranium need to be fenced off.

– People living on or near polluted water courses need to be relocated

 

Why the Acid Mine Drainage in South Africa needs to be discussed and addressed.

Water containing acid mine drainage can look deceivingly clear when the mineral compounds it carries are still in solution, but clear water can be incredibly toxic. The contaminated drainage can range in pH levels from lemon juice to battery acid. Few organisms survive in it.

Pyrite is the main cause of water pollution originating from abandoned mine workings and residue deposits. Management of AMD aims to reduce the impact of the effluent to levels that can be tolerated by the environment without significant damage. In order to minimize this pollution, precautions must be taken to ensure that rainwater does not come into contact with pyrite. Groundwater neutralized with lime or passive treatment systems, which rely on natural geochemical and biological processes for acid neutralization and precipitation- adsorption of metals, is widely used to prevent AMD. With the necessary AMD treatment measures in place, mine water can be treated to a potable, industrial or agricultural standard.

The following videos may help in gaining a better understanding of what AMD is, the effects thereof, and what can be done to manage and prevent further damages:

Do the drivers for change relate to the “Great Acceleration” of human technologies, powers and consumption?

The drivers of change of all three of the articles do relate to the “Great Acceleration” in things such as technologies and consumption and power. The “Great Acceleration” can simply be defined as the way in which humans have over more than half of the last decade, used technologies and other powers to increase their levels of consumption in such a way that has caused it to be a key driver of Global Change (Holm, 2015:980). These human advances have come with an alteration of the planet’s carbon and nitrogen cycles, rapidly rising species extinction rates, and the generation of atmospheric greenhouse gases, which in turn are catalysts for adverse weather patterns and increased ocean acidification, “the consequences of which will condition life on the planet for centuries to come” (Holm, 2015:980). According to the three articles analysed, citizen.co.za (2014), greenpeace.org (2011) and environment.co.za (2011), the key drivers which appear in the context of mining pollution in South Africa, are related to the ways in which the mines extract the minerals they desire from the earth and also the ways in which the mines dispose of their waste. The main aim of the entire mining industry is to fuel the economy and provide humans with commodities despite the impact it has on the environment and future generations.

Mining in South Africa has been the main driving force behind the history and development of Africa’s most advanced and richest economy, after Nigeria. The economic power gained through the discovery of large magnitudes of gold and diamonds caused large scale and profitable mining which in turn, led to political rise and power. The industry represents 18% of South Africa’s $588 billion USD Gross Domestic Product (Mathews, 2007).

How does the absence or presence of solutions relate to “The New Human Condition”?

The “New Human Condition” refers to how the consequences and responsibilities of environmental concerns make us, as humans, react (Holm, 2015:983). Some react in denial, despair, alarmism or hopefully, action.  Holm (2015) argues that some involved parties choose to ignore the situation, choose to contribute to the solutions, or even choose to contribute to the problem.

Greenpeace.org (2011) highlights the fact that The Inter Ministerial Committee on Acid Mine Drainage (IMC) was established in September 2010 in order to determine a plan of action and to develop a government response. However, since its establishment, millions of litres of AMD continue to flow into, and contaminate the environment. This is because many involved parties have reacted in despair and/or denial because despite there being numerous technologies for the effective treatment of AMD, and regular calls for urgent action by stakeholders, no protective measures have been taken. The lack of action by the authorities and mining companies has resulted in a vast amount of the public to be in denial about the whole issue, as they view matter as minor because the government in which they trust, do not stress the seriousness of the issue.

Environment.co.za have reacted in alarmism and desperately urge the public to do so as well. Organisations like this one brought the issue of AMD into the public eye and only after several years of these efforts is the issue now seeing international attention and rightly so. So the convenience of hiding this issue under the rug has now turned into an Inconvenient Truth for the mining houses and government. Were it not for the efforts of the unfunded environmental groups of South Africa who give of their personal time and face threats and ridicule on a daily basis, this issue would still be conveniently swept under the rug. Big Media Organisations are now picking up on this issue and Carte Blanche also did an insert recently.

Do the proposed solutions engage with the business/corporate sector?

Most solutions for acid mine drainage rely on the business/corporate sector and the government. The article by citizen.co.za (2014) mentions that the Federation for a Sustainable Environment has found that neutralisation is the preferred way of treatment as it causes the heavy metals to “fall out” of treated water, before it is pumped to a natural water system. Environment.co.za highlight the fact that the mining sector need to take responsibility in treating and managing the effects if AMD by stating that “Mining houses need to stop any further seepage from their mining operations and they need to do so immediately and they need to do it AT THEIR OWN COST!!! These problems must NOT cost the taxpayers” (2011).

Do the proposed solutions and means to do it stem from collaborative processes of research, stakeholder engagement and public participation?

No stakeholder engagement as they are fully aware that by bringing attention to the pollution caused by mining they will most likely end up losing money. Stakeholders are more likely to actively fight against positive legislation than support it. Public participation is minimal as many of the affected populace are unaware of the seriousness of the issue (because the government and media cover up the damages) and thus they have no urge to participate in research and/or propose solutions. The only collaborative process that has possibly actively sought to improve the mining situation is that of environmental research, by many non-profit organisations like greenpeace.org, who urge “government and mining companies need to take responsibility now, taking extensive measures to prevent any further damage and to safeguard the local population” 2011.

Are the solutions translated into practical means that can easily be achieved by the public?

Because mining is of a highly industrialised nature, and solely controlled by huge corporations and the government, there is not much that the public can do in order to make a significant impact in resolving the issue other than expose the truth and demand action take place in bettering the circumstances.

Closing thoughts

The flow of polluted water from past and present mines is a chronic problem in South Africa, and large volumes of water carrying toxic sulphates and metals are tainting community water supplies. Mining in South Africa has resulted in vast amounts of pollution that requires the attention of both the public as well as new legislation and enforcement from the government. An analysis such as this one can prove to be vital when raising awareness about environmental issues but the media is more interested in covering specific events rather than long lasting problems (Grant & Lawhon, 2014: 41).

Check out #DigEcoAction on a variety of different environmental issues and follow my twitter account: https://twitter.com/KellySkye06 for regular updates!

words: 1527

References

Environment News, 2011. Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) South Africa. [Online] Available at: http://www.environment.co.za/poisoning-carcinogens-heavy-metals-mining/acid-mine-drainage-amd-south-africa.html
[Accessed: 01/04/2016]

Grant, S & Lawhon, M. 2014. Reporting on rhinos: analysis of the newspaper coverage of rhino poaching. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education 30:39-52.

Holm, P et al. 2015. Humanities for the Environment – A manifesto for research and action. Humanites 4:977-992.

Mathews, C. 2007. South Africa: Mining Investment Shows Recovery. [Online] Available at: http://allafrica.com/stories/200711070356.html
[Accessed: 02/04/2016]

Williams, G. 2011. Acid Mine Drainage in Johannesburg. [Online] Available at: http://www.greenpeace.org/africa/en/News/news/Acid-Mine-Drainage/
[Accessed: 01/04/2016]

Wolmarans, E. 2014. Joburg under threat from acid mine drainage. [Online] Available at: http://citizen.co.za/151375/acid-attack/
[Accessed: 01/03/2016]

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One thought on “The devious and devastating Acid Mine Drainage

  1. Pingback: Theme 1: Environmental Humanities and the media | Digital Environmental Humanities

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