Gauteng and NW Province

Is Carolina’s water the beginning of SA’s future water?

(Carte Blanche).

“You may not have heard of Carolina; with only 17 000 people, it’s a small dot in the heart of the coal mining area.”

In January, Carolina was warned by its municipality that it was unsafe to drink the tap water. The Boesmanspruit dam supplying the town was contaminated. Water Affairs COO Trevor Balzer told Parliament in May that four mines were implicated.

Dr Koos Pretorius (Director: Federation for a Sustainable Environment): “On the 11th January basically what happened was there [was] dead fish in the dam and when the water was tested it was found that the dam was basically one big pond of acid mine drainage.”

Dr Koos Pretorius is a vet, a water activist and a farmer living just outside the town. His mission is to protect the water sources from what he says are cowboy coal miners.

Dr Pretorius: “We are unfortunately now harvesting the fruits of what has been going on for probably about 15 to 20 years of the departments not working together, of laws being flouted by the mining industry and having no consequences. Carolina is a small example of Gauteng… what is going to happen there.”

Dr Pretorius’s battle against the mines starts here in the hills [on screen] above the town dam.

Dr Pretorius: “The water at the Vaal catchment right at the top is better than bottled water, but as it comes down the river it goes through these mining areas. And it just gets polluted as it goes downstream, downstream, downstream until we reach what we currently have in the Carolina dam.”

Before the warnings came in January, Nippy, who runs the local Superquick [store] was in for a shock when he cleaned his pool.

Roland ‘Nippy’ Klopper (Businessman): “I came home one Sunday after church and decided to clean it. I added one cup of HTH and within ten minutes it had turned completely black.”

Nippy’s pool turned black because he changed the pH of the water and the heavy metals dissolved in it began to oxidise and precipitate out. The acid water ate into the pool’s marbelite. But if the water could do this to his pool – what, he wondered, was it doing to the people of Carolina?

Nippy: “None of us were informed about it. You could smell the water, and even if you showered, it left your skin sticky and messy so we knew there was something wrong, but we didn’t exactly know what.”

New research being undertaken at the CSIR shows that cells exposed to untreated acid mine water have damaged DNA.

Devi Sankaree Govender (Carte Blanche presenter): “The Department of Water Affairs sent out a rapid response team, but it soon became clear that there was no simple or cheap solution.”

As an emergency measure, Water Affairs helped the treatment works to put in a liming plant that removed heavy metals like manganese and iron. But in March the aluminium remained, giving the water a turquoise-like colour and it was this water that was ending up in Dr Cor Steenberg’s expensive water filters.

Dr Cor Steenburg (GP): “It’s a new filter – 36 hours ago I replaced it and this morning I took it out and it looks like this [blackened]. That’s within 36 hours!”

When we returned at the end of May the aluminium had been removed, but it was still not safe to drink the water.

Devi: “Residents who can afford it, either buy water or have sunk boreholes, but those options are simply not available for the people living in the neighbouring township of Silobela.”

Instead, they must rely on the haphazard delivery of clean water in Jojo tanks organised by the municipality. Jordan Mayaba is a local DA community activist.

Devi: “How often do they come?”

Jordan Mayaba: “Maybe once a week. There is no specific time. If you are not there that time those tanks come that means you lose the water.”

At one point money ran out to pay the contractors and there was simply no council water delivered.

Disco Twala was one of many that confirmed the haphazard and insufficient supply.

Disco Twala: “Sometimes on those Jojo tanks it takes three days or four days, no water.”

So the people of Silobela survive largely thanks to the Muslim community. The local mosque spent around R30 000 sinking boreholes. Their Jojo tank is the only dependable option to people all over the township who spend many hours fetching and carrying water.

Disco: “We are only saved by the church of the Moslem.”

But, if the mosque can sink a borehole for the people, why can’t the municipality do the same? We don’t know because they cancelled our interview at the last minute. What we do know is that the drinking water they supply has a dismal track record.

The May 2012 Blue Drop report from Water Affairs gives them [Albert Luthuli Local Municipality] a paltry 9.78% score – one of the worst in the country. They found that for most of 2011 both the microbiological and chemical data confirmed that all water poses a serious risk to public health.

This is an old mine closed and rehabilitated in 2005, and bought by Siphethe Coal in 2008.

Dr Pretorius: “That is rehabilitated according to the DMR – they are happy with that, I am sure. The water thereafter is none of their business as far as they are concerned.”

But about a hundred metres downhill Koos showed us how, in his view, toxic water from that so-called “rehabilitated” mine is seeping straight into one of the tributaries that feeds Carolina’s dam.

Chantal: “So what is the danger of what we are looking at?”

Dr Pretorius: “We are looking at water with a pH of battery acid. We are looking at extremely high levels of manganese, iron and aluminium, as well as sulphates.”

The World Health Organisation recommends a maximum sulphate level of 200mg per litre in drinking water. For the last few months, tests show Carolina’s water has been up to double that.

Dr Pretorius: “Sulphates also [has] – even at a low level – a negative impact on the immune system. People with HIV… that is absolutely fatal.”

Siphethe said in a written statement that the mine on its property was closed in 2005 and it is not legally responsible for any remaining pollution. Siphethe also said it believed the Water Affairs report is without merit and has commissioned its own tests into the water quality, and has indicated its willingness to find a solution.

BHP Billiton says it’s committed to protect and care for the environment, that it has taken adequate steps to prevent water pollution and it has presented expert reports to the relevant authorities that show it’s not responsible for the Carolina pollution.

Msobo say they are not in a position to respond to the parliamentary statement as the issue is pending, that they’re working with the Carolina Water Task Team and the Department to develop an integrated water management plan for the catchment.

Northern Coal also denies any involvement with pollution in Carolina, and says it has obtained independent advice that confirms this. It also says it has offered the municipality assistance.

Dr Pretorius: “So by way of elimination it’s the good Lord that is responsible!”

Yet Koos has taken many photos and samples that he says contradict what the mines are saying.

Dr Pretorius: “Water Affairs knew about this issue six years ago. The Mpumalanga government knew about this, but nobody is prepared to act against a mine, because they are worried about the political ramifications for their career.”

“Carolina is the start – it’s the beginning; it is not the end.”

June 2012
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