State knew about danger for 40 years

DEADLY DUST: Children from the Tudor settlement near the lethal radioactive durst of Tudor Dam on the West Rand. Pic. Joel Avni. 24/07/07. © Sowetan.
DEADLY DUST: Children from the Tudor settlement near the lethal radioactive durst of Tudor Dam on the West Rand. Pic. Joel Avni. 24/07/07. © Sowetan.

Joel Avni

Joel Avni

Gold mines on the Witwatersrand are exposing millions of people in Gauteng and North West to poisoned waters, leaving a trail of suspected cancer, kidney disease and death.

No one can put a figure to the devastation because officials have refused to heed calls for an epidemiological study to determine the extent of the catastrophe, say researchers and environmental groups monitoring the disaster.

National, provincial and local officials have known since the 1960s that citizens would be exposed to the witch's brew of toxic chemicals that current and closed mines spew as waste into our waterways every single day.

But bureaucrats and their political masters in democratic South Africa have been as unwilling to offend the magnates and their investors as their counterparts were during apartheid.

The poor, the old, the young, and especially those infected with HIV are most at risk.

The constitution and a slew of laws nominally protect citizens. But Sowetan has witnessed unwitting communities - megarich and pitifully poor - drink, bathe and play at unfenced poisonous sites. Radioactive dams as corrosive as battery acid and devoid of plant and animal life were not even signposted.

The cocktail includes heavy metals and chemicals that cause cancer and mental retardation, destroy the kidneys, and can even poison victims outright.

Uranium and other radioactive elements occur in such high concentrations that dams are declared nuclear sites.

But no sign warns local communities and no fence keeps them or their livestock at bay - as required by law.

The mines, academics and researchers have known about the problem for decades. But the departments of Minerals and Energy, Water Affairs, Environment and Tourism, the National Nuclear Regulator, provincial and local officials have suppressed or ignored their reports, says Mariette Liefferink, an activist for environmental justice.

Wonderfonteinspruit rises in Randfontein on the West Rand and feeds the Mooi River, which provides Potchefstroom with its water. Millions of people live next to this waterway, which is poisoned all along its length by mine waste, according to reports by the Water Research Commission, the Council of Geoscience, the Jordaan Commission, and the national State of the Environment Report 2002 for North West.

Tudor Dam in Mogale City lies a short distance northeast of the spruit's source. The sediment is contaminated with so much uranium that it should be declared a nuclear site, cordoned off and marked with signs warning people of the danger.

But it has been bone-dry for months, with no water to shield the residents alongside it from the sediments.

Children playing in the dust on Sunday said no one had ever warned them of the dangers.

Robinson Lake lies a few kilometres down the Wonderfonteinspruit in Randfontein. The dam was once a popular picnic area and prime fishing spot.

For the past five years Harmony gold mine has been pumping water into the lake, which is now completely dead. A recent investigation found a single species of amphipod in its waters - and nothing else. It too is so radioactive that by law it should be fenced off and signposted.

But the Randfontein Golf Estate with a hotel and more than 520 homes is being built on its lifeless banks.

No warning is posted to advise the proud new owners that their investments are perched on an impoundment that poses a risk to them and their children.