MechChem Africa

Peter Middleton questions the disproportionate response in South Africa to Eskom and nuclear issues and compares them to the muted response to our potentially more damaging water woes

Peter pic latestAt the time of writing, the Constitutional Court is hearing arguments about the ‘secrecy’ of the vote of no confidence against Jacob Zuma; Brian Molefe has being reappointed as Eskom, CEO; and, in spite of the brakes being applied to the nuclear procurement programme by the Western Cape High Court – because of a lack of due process – African Utility Week in Cape Town is expected to be dominated by the nuclear debate.

These issues, along with radical economic transformation, the threat of a third downgrade to ‘junk status’ by Moody’s and the divisive nature of the ANC’s presidential succession campaigns are so dominant that the importance of environmental issues are being downgraded to ‘trivial’.

At SAIChE’s Gauteng dinner late last month, a stalwart in the environmental space, Mariette Liefferink, presented an overview of the state of South Africa’s water, with particular emphasis on the effects of mining. Liefferink’s legal background and the litigation experience of the organisation she leads  – the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) – were evident in the meticulous referencing and credits associated with every fact she presented.

These are sobering, if not chilling and MechChem Africa’s summary of her talk is a ‘must read’ in this issue.

From a water availability perspective, 12 of South Africa’s 19 Water Management Areas (WMAs) require intervention, based on a detailed map presented courtesy of Fred van Zyl, chief engineer for macro planning for the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).

An online report of a briefing to Ministers by the DWS on its Infrastructure Master Plan, dated 3 June 2015, reports that ‘… the total estimated replacement cost (of water infrastructure) was R1.18-billion, and the estimated investment requirement over ten years was R805-billion, or R81-billion per annum. The total funding available was R46-billion per annum, meaning there was a funding deficit of R35-billion per annum …’ [ref: pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/21011/].

A little further down in the summary, we read: ‘… DWS was dealing with a backlog of over 100 years in the making, and to eradicate it in 21 years was impossible, with the changing urban landscape, the mushrooming of informal settlements and the increase in urban migration’.

This report predates the first appointment of Brian Molefe as the permanent CEO of Eskom (Sep 25, 2015) to ‘sort out’ our load shedding issues. Have any equivalent appointments or interventions been taken since to resolve SA’s water distress issues?

The key focus for Liefferink at the FSE is the mining industry and its impacts on the environment, most notably, water pollution and acid mine drainage (AMD). She points out early in her presentation that mine water acidity as a phenomenon associated with pumping water from pits was already recognised back in 1903. And 20 years ago in 1987, the US Environmental Protection Agency recognised that “... problems related to mining waste may be rated as second only to global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion in terms of ecological risk …”

Under the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the historical knowledge of the AMD problem should put the reparation responsibility back onto the mining companies. But the nature of the problem is such that it manifests most dangerously after a mine has been shut down. Many of the original mine owners are no longer in business and, while current owners are more responsible, most of the treatment costs are still being borne by the public purse and water end-users.

Quoting published reports by Department of Water Affairs and Forestry from 2003 and 2006, (DWAF), Liefferink says: “… mine void water exceeds the maximum allowable limits (Class II) of the SABS 241 Drinking Water Standard, in many cases by several orders of magnitude: pH, EC, TDS, So4, Fe, Mg, Ca, Man, Al, BP, Co and Ni’. Much of the water is also radioactive.

It is currently acceptable to treat AMD by neutralisation or pH adjustment. In this process, dissolved metals precipitate out of solution in the form of highly toxic sludge, which is often being ‘contained’ in unlined pits, where future ingress risks remain.

In addition, the pH-adjusted water contains significant percentages of dissolved salts, so the treated water requires dilution using purer and more expensive resources in order to make it safe. Hence the need to adopt more modern and more expensive reverse osmosis or ion exchange treatment technologies.

The treatment costs, as quoted by the May 2016 Long Term Treatment of AMD document, estimated the capex cost to be in the region of R10- to R12-billion, with ongoing opex costs of R25-million per month, with at least 33% being borne by the public.

South Africa is, undoubtedly, faced with multiple imperatives. Water however, already underfunded and poorly prioritised, is being dangerously neglected due to the prevailing noise.

BANNER 8

Contact MechChem Africa

Title: Editor
Name: Peter Middleton
Email: mechchemafrica@crown.co.za or peterm@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622 4770
Fax: +27 11 615 6108

Title: Editor
Name: Glynnis Koch
Email: mechchemafrica@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622 4770
Fax: +27 11 615 6108

Title: Advertising Manager
Name: Brenda Karathanasis
Email: brendak@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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