Gold mines leave tarnished legacy
South Africa sites pose toxic threat
RANDFONTEIN, South Africa — When it rains in the shantytown of Tudor Shaft, the streets pool with orange water that smells like vinegar. Scientists say the water contains radioactive minerals and has killed all aquatic life in a nearby river.
Tudor Shaft takes its name, and its troubles, from an abandoned gold mine.
It’s just a fraction of the toxic but long-overlooked legacy of South Africa’s most famous industry. Mining accounts for 17 percent of everything South Africa produces, and the country is the world’s fourth biggest exporter, sitting on a mother lode that runs for miles from Johannesburg into the countryside.
Social campaigners, preoccupied first with overthrowing apartheid and then with raising living standards for a badly neglected black majority, are now waking up to the environmental cause. The effects of mining are the focus of parliamentary debate and newspaper stories. But no one is yet taking responsibility or funding a cleanup that would probably put a dent in profits.
Johannesburg literally sits on a gold mine. Flat-topped heaps of mined earth are backdrops to skyscrapers and bridges.
The city of 3.2 million grew out of the gold bonanza discovered in the early 1900s. Nowadays, whenever a mining company removes one of the 270 dumps around Johannesburg to reprocess the waste, heritage advocates complain that the city is losing a piece of its patrimony.
The worst environmental effects are felt in places like Tudor Shaft, 25 miles from the city. Here, Patrick Mkoyo’s children run barefoot, their feet tinted orange from contaminated sand. He says they sometimes come home with rashes or breathing difficulties.
“They are not OK here, but I don’t have a choice; I have no other place to stay,’’ says Mkoyo, 35, as he stirs a family lunch of cornmeal porridge. The doctors tell him they don’t know what is causing the medical problems.
But Chris Busby, a professor from Northern Ireland’s University of Ulster, thinks he knows.
In December, he tested the soil around Mkoyo’s shack and found it contained at least 32 times the amount of radioactivity allowed by government regulators. Busby prepared the report for the Federation for Sustainable Environment, a private Johannesburg group trying to bring attention to the issue.
Terence McCarthy, a minerals professor at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, radioactivity comes from uranium traces in mined rock, which lies in dumps until rain flushes it into the ground and river systems.
Aside from Tudor Shaft, other parts of the city’s outskirts are feeling the damage of toxic mine water, entering rivers and communities at an increasing rate with heavy rain in recent months, scientists say.