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Water expert explains why tailings dams matter after Jagersfontein mine dam disaster

Sep 21, 2022

3 min read
21 September 2022
08:00

The Free State accident at Jagersfontein, where a mine dam wall collapsed and destroyed everything in its path, still haunts the locals. It resulted in fatalities and the destruction of livelihoods. One million people live close to mine tailings dams, and they are all at risk of the same fate, according to a 2011 report commissioned and later buried.

Water expert Dr Anthony Turton of the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State spoke to Radio Islam International to provide further insight about the report.

Dr Turton explained that mine tailings disposable facility (TDF) or tailing dam was used to store the fine, milled material that is part of any mining operation that must be disposed of. This is the only method available to do so presently. He added that the site would have to be managed even if the facility was shut down.

According to Turton, tailings are a ground substance that is tiny, primarily round, and needs to be stored. The tailings then need to be utilised to build a dam, which makes it structurally weak due to the nature of the materials.

The more alarming point, according to Turton, is that when South Africa achieved democracy, more migrants made their way to cities, especially the Johannesburg area. To accommodate these migrants, the only land available for them was the TDF land.

The tailings could contain heavy metals depending on what was mined in the area. In the case of Jagersfontein, the tailings are benign, but in areas where, for instance, gold is mined, the tailings could contain uranium and other heavy metals like arsenic and lead.

Dr Turton says that their monitoring predicted that more than a million people would live in these areas in direct contact with the tailings, which in many cases was not benign. And using high-resolution maps, they identified hundreds of mine dumps and the various developments around these regions. He added that to do nothing meant that the longer this situation was perpetuated, the more people would settle there, exposing them to the dangers of heavy metal poisoning, etc.

Referring to the report, Dr Turton says that the cut and thrust of the report was how this situation was managed – the catastrophes could be managed, or the tailings could be removed or vice versa, but with South Africa’s history of Apartheid and forced removal, the only choice was to the most obvious solution was to clean up the land to make it safe.

The mining companies are now non-existent due to several changes, and the only recourse would be in the Courts; however, human lives and livelihoods remain at stake.

Turton says that the tailings issue is part of a larger picture, which deals with the transition of mining from formal to more informal mining presently.

He explained that the laws that structured the State since 1910 were centred on mining but recently, the State no longer has the power to enforce the law in those areas, which has allowed the Zama Zama miners, who belong to international syndicates that smuggle gold internationally to establish themselves in these areas. Furthermore, tailings contain gold and other metals residue, which lends itself to illegal activities.

Turton concluded by saying that the situation is “symptomatic of the transition of the State from one of central authority to one where there is no longer centralised authority.”

[LISTEN] to the podcast here

By Annisa Essack
kzn@radioislam.org.za

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