Acid mine drainage flowing into a farm dam is distinguished by its brown colour. Use of affected water can be dangerous for humans,  plants and livestock. Picture: THE TIMES
Acid mine drainage flowing into a farm dam is distinguished by its brown colour. Use of affected water can be dangerous for humans, plants and livestock. Picture: THE TIMES

THE harsh realities of more than 120 years of mining, particularly on the goldfields of the Witwatersrand, became most pronounced in 2001 when the alarm was raised about a "decant" on the West Rand.

The leakage of acidic mine water from disused and abandoned mines created the need to protect the environment into which the polluted water was flowing.

The decant caused unwanted water security risks and negative socioeconomic and environmental effects. The worst risk was to the Vaal Dam and Vaal River system, which is central to water security in Gauteng.

The decision by the Cabinet to institute an interministerial committee on acid mine drainage in 2010, guided and supported by a team of experts, proved to be a master stroke.

Whereas initially acid mine drainage was regarded as an issue only for the then department of water affairs, what resulted from the work of the interministerial committee was that a multipronged approach was identified as required.

Another important lesson is that all interested and affected parties have a role to play in the resolution of many of the negative effects humankind has on the world. While the government needs to ensure the security of all, the voices of those outside the government who are interested and affected by problems must and will also be heard.

In working out how to solve the major challenge of acid mine drainage, it became apparent that, like the intertwined fingers of two hands, the government had to partner with the private sector — mining, industry and agriculture — and environmental nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and affected communities to reach consensus on how to address it.

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THE team of experts suggested short-term acid mine drainage mitigation interventions, with the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) as the implementing agent.

The technical solution for the Western Basin commenced in December 2011 with the upgrading of an existing acid mine drainage plant to a capacity of 36-million litres per day. The neutralised water was released to the Tweelopiespruit.

The project eradicated surface decant by August 2012, with a significant improvement in river water quality and aquatic life. It was augmented by new clarifiers and a new pump station to cleanse 70-million litres per day.

The technical solution for the Central Basin started in January 2013 with the construction of a new acid mine drainage treatment plant next to the South West Vertical Shaft. This plant has a capacity of 84-million litres per day and has been operational since May 2014. It is currently treating 72-million litres per day according to the Department of Water and Sanitation’s specifications. The treated water is being released into the Elsburgspruit.

For the Eastern Basin, work commenced in July 2014 with the construction of a new acid mine drainage treatment plant next to the Grootvlei No 3 shaft, with a capacity of 110-million litres per day. Commissioning started in March with full operation projected for July. The treated water will be released into the Blesbokspruit.

Beyond this short-term intervention, the team of experts also suggested a long-term acid mine drainage mitigation intervention.

The government has directed that all options need to be considered to ensure that the best and most cost-effective approach is implemented. The TCTA was appointed as the implementing agent in May and has developed an accelerated programme to clean the water.

The long-term solution will integrate with the short-term solution and the desalinated acid mine drainage will be directed towards beneficial socioeconomic uses. In the long run this will have a positive effect on reducing demand from the Vaal River. The operations are projected to start in February 2020.

READ THIS: Treating acid mine drainage will cost up to R12bn, says Mokonyane

Political will was required to tackle this challenge. Initially there was huge criticism of the government when the problem was identified, but there is now appreciation from many environmental NGOs of the effort and direction that this process has taken. The inclusion of all stakeholders in the process and sharing information have really helped.

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FOR the long-term solution to be sustainable, there will need to be rigorous monitoring and reporting on acid mine drainage, with the Department of Water and Sanitation verifying water and salt balances. There has to be support for and strengthening of partnerships with, for example, mining companies, Rand Water, Sasol and Eskom.

What will also help is the continuous exploration of promising technologies and strategies for acid mine drainage management by a technology development task team that has yet to be established.

Proactive measures for acid mine drainage management nationally must include an assessment of other mining catchment areas to ensure timeous interventions with specific emphasis on mine water policy, strategies, control, prevention and the reuse of mining-affected water.

A national acid mine drainage/mine water management policy has to be developed, which will include partnerships with business to address the problem.

The interministerial committee will ensure that engagements to optimise and ensure parallel measures for acid mine drainage and mine water management are sustainable for a long while to come.

Acid mine drainage took a long time to show itself. It will take a long time to collectively ensure that it becomes a boon instead.

• Ratau is director of media liaison at the Department of Water and Sanitation