‘!ke e:/xarra//ke:’ South African Motto; Coat of Arms.’ ‘Unity in Diversity’
In this August issue, among the papers that give the conclusions of well-done scientific work, we also present a paper that admits defeat in providing a final answer. This is a legal paper on the ownership of slimes dams.
It follows a two-part presentation on a closely related topic in the previous July issue, ‘The socio-economic aspects of mine closure and sustainable development’, by J. Stacey et al. The paper impressed me by its complexity and scope. The authors attempted to analyse and provide a code of practice for the Sustainability legislation imposed on the mining industry.
After repeated readings, I came to the conclusion that there could be no complete answer but rather an elaboration of the complexity of the topic. ‘Sustainability’ has many profound ramifications relating to mine closure, including environmental acceptability, safety, long-term stability, and hydrological considerations. Above all, the future of the workers and the community is paramount since they are threatened with no livelihood after cessation of the mining activity. Thus sustainability is critically coupled with the problem of job creation
in all its complexity.
This is no criticism of the paper. There are many situations in the mining and metallurgical field which involve attempts at assembling a large number of profound considerations into a coherent whole. It is analogous to fitting a collection of flexible pieces of a jigsaw puzzle where the final picture is an abstract unfocused artwork.
Fortunately the advances in multi-dimensional research portfolio computerized planning are proliferating but demanding more data from R&D activities on future statistical predictions.
In the case of sustainability in the mining context, there is one overriding outcome demanded in the form of meaningful job creation. This is easily and frequently propounded. But there are few proven avenues to achieve this. We must contemplate immense R&D efforts needed to develop the new value-added goods and services for successful and enduring job creation. The enormity of such an assignment must be recognized in the context of the national situation.
Economist Mike Schussler, who presented the ‘2010 South African employment report’ recently said that, in fact, for the first time, more people in the country were currently receiving money from welfare than from employment, with 12.8 million people working and 13.8 million people receiving welfare payments from the proceeds of only five million people.
It is always difficult to comprehend such statistical data. To give an order of magnitude impression, I calculate that the welfare costs of the unemployed are more than the total turnover of the whole platinum mining industry.
In the light of the lack of skills among rural families, the school dropout levels and the disruption caused by the curriculum changes, there can be little doubt that to provide many thousands of jobs in the event of a mine closure is a challenging if not impossible assignment. Certainly such a legally imposed outcome for the mining industry cannot be considered as reasonable or currently feasible. But it is not hopeless if a coalition with the wealth of development potential in government and other industries can be unified into a national crusade to break the back of the unemployment crisis.
Similar complexities apply to the paper in this August issue by Nic Roodt et al. Some 60 years ago these slimes dams and the associated mine dumps were items of nostalgic beauty representing a fitting backdrop to the ‘City of Gold’.
Today they are proving to be accessories to the scourge of acid mine drainage plaguing the gold and coal-mining industry in terms of long-term pollution. This is now causing some consternation among the legal fraternity. On the one hand, there are some valuable constituents to be recovered from the waste dumps. But on the other hand, there is a dangerous leakage from the dumps creating a noxious environmental situation. The basic dilemma is who should benefit and who must bear the cost of pollution remediation. After reading the paper analysing the legal arguments, I come to the conclusion that any judgement on any level will lead to an immensely costly legal battle. Commonsense indicates that the legal answer is possible only once the technical problems are resolved.
There are several conceptual solutions to the AMD pollution and slimes dams problem, and to illustrate this more meaningfully I have taken some of the component pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, many of which have been previously published or mentioned in this Journal, and quote features of them to illustrate the interaction with a sustainability portfolio.
One of the urgent problems is the discharge of toxic AMD effluent from the rising aquifer underlying the East Rand gold mines.
This volume is of the order of 100 megalitres per day.
Several processes to handle this problem have been suggested, one of which not only removes the acid and toxic elements, but also produces as byproducts a range of fertilizers. The product water is of domestic quality and could be sold at normal prices. After use as such it can be augmented to provide, say, 200 Ml/d of domestic effluent. Sewage sludge could be separated from the effluent by standard techniques and the clear overflow sterilized by a simple heat autoclaving at low cost using methane as an energy source. The clear effluents to which the fertilizers from the by-products of the mine effluent plant have been added provide valuable agricultural irrigation water. Although sterilized, such effluent can be used only in subsurface irrigation of which the commonly accepted technique is hydroponic fertigation as used in Israel and Mexico.
This is no inferior system, but a sophisticated computer controlled system and highly efficient in water, land, and fertilizer usage.
With these pieces of the puzzle added, a new picture emerges. We can now visualize a profitable small-lot-farming venture of 20 000 farmer families on waste land of 20 000 hectares. Agricultural quality land is not required, and the possibility exists that detoxified slimes dams from which the valuable metals have been recovered, could be used.
Many crops can be selected to provide food, animal feeds, biofuels, and biomass which with sewage sludge, and animal manure, can, using anaerobic digestion to provide completely ‘green’ methane, provide a valuable energy source (fossil methane is currently being piped from Mozambique for diesel electric supply for the new MTN office building in Fairlands, Johannesburg).
Data from the literature indicates that it is possible to generate a total turnover value of well over one billion rand per annum. With this base it is now possible to add many other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to believe that a sustainable job creation pattern can be expanded at least twofold.
One of the largest expense items to be provided to the farmer family is a computer for control of their farming. This will introduce the whole family to the modern age of information technology and to advanced schooling and career development. A village of over 20 000 families will generate not only infrastructure demands but also create many job opportunities and for value-added goods such as those from leather, fibres and food products. There will inevitably be manufacturing facilities for biofuels, for example, and trained staff will be needed
for water treatment, microbiology, and water processing. Much international interest and participation are possible.
This portfolio is but a concept. It is put forward in this Comment to illustrate the magnitude and flexibility of the sustainability challenge in the mining industry. Other creative portfolios exist that are ready for development. Are they to remain pipedreams?
It will certainly be so unless there is a unity of national purpose between Government, private enterprise, and the people who are to be the beneficiaries.
In the light of the inspiration from the 2010 World Cup Soccer, such portfolios might perhaps become realities.
- Written by RE Robinson
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