The Toxic Landscape of Johannesburg’s Gold Mines

June 18, 2014 Posted by admin

‘Pressurised Water, Viscount Road, near Main Reef Road, Randfontein, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, 2013.’ High-powered water canons are started in preparation for reclamation of a mine dump. About 30 bars of pressure are needed to break up and turn the sand into slurry, which is then transported to the processing plant where any remaining gold content is extracted. It will take around four years to reclaim the remaining four-and-half million tons of sand. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Neutralised AMD, Tweelopies Road, near Main Reef Road, Randfontein, Johannesburg, 2012.’ This unlined pit located between the mine dumps is the receptor pit for neutralised acid mine drainage from mining operations nearby. But even after neutralisation, this ever-growing, sludge-and-water mix has elevated levels of heavy metals like uranium, manganese, aluminium, lead, copper and cobalt. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Breaking Down the Dump, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, 2013.’ High pressured water is used to break down the mine dump and create an easily transportable slurry through a network of pipes to the central processing factory, where remaining gold content will be extracted. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Homeless, West Turffontein, Johannesburg, 2013.’ Zizone, has been living on the mine dump for one month. Mentally ill and unemployed he feels safe on top of the mine where he recycles small amounts of plastic for money. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Top Star, Boysens, Johannesburg, 2010.’ The outdoor drive-in screen of the Top Star Cinema still standing on a mine dump that is being reprocessed around it. A reported $10 million worth of latent gold was recovered from this dump over three years. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Admi, Turffontein Road exit, Booysens, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Admi, 38, collects recyclable material from a municipal rubbish dump to sell to scrap and recycling businesses, averaging a daily income of R150. Several unusual rubbish dumps like this are on top of old mine dumps that were sold or rented to the municipality many years ago by mining companies. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘AMD, Robertville, Johannesburg, 2011.’ Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Winter Fires, City Deep, Johannesburg, 2010.’ A fire breaks out on a mine dump that is now covered with trees and vegetation. Mining companies started to plant vegetation on dumps in the 60’s to help stop the ongoing dust problems. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Girls, Medway Street, River Lea, Johannesburg, 2012.’ Hundreds of thousands of people across the southwest of Johannesburg live in communities located around some of Johannesburg’s largest mine dumps. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Panning For Gold, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Zaia Mugabe collects water needed in the process of recovering latent gold from an abandoned mine dump. Together with his friend they reprocess around 30 bags of soil a day from the dump through an old and time consuming method to extract fine pieces of gold. They are able to recover about 0.5-0.6g a day which they sell for nearly £15 ($22). Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Commercial Rubbish Dump, City Deep, Off Rosettenville Road, Booysens, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Birds flock around a commercial rubbish dump on an old mine. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Daniel and the Hunting Dogs, Selby, Central Johannesburg, 2012.’ Daniel watches over the hunting dogs he looks after on the mine dump he lives on. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Mine Dump Sand, Roodeport, Johannesburg, 2012.’ Children play with the toxic sand from the nearby mine dump after it’s washed into the streets by rain water and dries up. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘N8, Intersection of New Canada Road and N17 High Road, Soweto, Johannesburg, 2010.’ A newly constructed road around a still-used tailings dam belonging to DRD Gold, which owns over 150 mine dumps across Johannesburg. Much of Johannesburg’s infrastructure is situated on land near to, or even on top of, old mining sites. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Sports Pitch, Central Johannesburg College, Crown Mines Site, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Football teams play in the shadow of one of Johannesburg’s largest mine dumps. The football pitch was built by DRD Gold who owns the land and mine dump. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Overlooking the Community of Davidsonville, Roodeport, Johannesburg, 2012.’ Photo: Jason Larkin

‘RDP Housing, Aalwyn Road, Riverlea, Johannesburg, 2010.’ New affordable housing constructed in front of a large mine dump that is being reprocessed for traces of gold. Many commercial and residential developments of the last few decades are near, or on, old mining sites containing hazardous waste, causing concern amongst residents and environmental groups. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Communal Sunday Prayers, City Deep, Johannesburg, 2013.’ Photo: Jason Larkin

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‘Pressurised Water, Viscount Road, near Main Reef Road, Randfontein, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, 2013.’ High-powered water canons are started in preparation for reclamation of a mine dump. About 30 bars of pressure are needed to break up and turn the sand into slurry, which is then transported to the processing plant where any remaining gold content is extracted. It will take around four years to reclaim the remaining four-and-half million tons of sand. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Neutralised AMD, Tweelopies Road, near Main Reef Road, Randfontein, Johannesburg, 2012.’ This unlined pit located between the mine dumps is the receptor pit for neutralised acid mine drainage from mining operations nearby. But even after neutralisation, this ever-growing, sludge-and-water mix has elevated levels of heavy metals like uranium, manganese, aluminium, lead, copper and cobalt. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Breaking Down the Dump, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, 2013.’ High pressured water is used to break down the mine dump and create an easily transportable slurry through a network of pipes to the central processing factory, where remaining gold content will be extracted. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Homeless, West Turffontein, Johannesburg, 2013.’ Zizone, has been living on the mine dump for one month. Mentally ill and unemployed he feels safe on top of the mine where he recycles small amounts of plastic for money. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Top Star, Boysens, Johannesburg, 2010.’ The outdoor drive-in screen of the Top Star Cinema still standing on a mine dump that is being reprocessed around it. A reported $10 million worth of latent gold was recovered from this dump over three years. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Admi, Turffontein Road exit, Booysens, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Admi, 38, collects recyclable material from a municipal rubbish dump to sell to scrap and recycling businesses, averaging a daily income of R150. Several unusual rubbish dumps like this are on top of old mine dumps that were sold or rented to the municipality many years ago by mining companies. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘AMD, Robertville, Johannesburg, 2011.’ Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Winter Fires, City Deep, Johannesburg, 2010.’ A fire breaks out on a mine dump that is now covered with trees and vegetation. Mining companies started to plant vegetation on dumps in the 60’s to help stop the ongoing dust problems. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Girls, Medway Street, River Lea, Johannesburg, 2012.’ Hundreds of thousands of people across the southwest of Johannesburg live in communities located around some of Johannesburg’s largest mine dumps. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Panning For Gold, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Zaia Mugabe collects water needed in the process of recovering latent gold from an abandoned mine dump. Together with his friend they reprocess around 30 bags of soil a day from the dump through an old and time consuming method to extract fine pieces of gold. They are able to recover about 0.5-0.6g a day which they sell for nearly £15 ($22). Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Commercial Rubbish Dump, City Deep, Off Rosettenville Road, Booysens, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Birds flock around a commercial rubbish dump on an old mine. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Daniel and the Hunting Dogs, Selby, Central Johannesburg, 2012.’ Daniel watches over the hunting dogs he looks after on the mine dump he lives on. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Mine Dump Sand, Roodeport, Johannesburg, 2012.’ Children play with the toxic sand from the nearby mine dump after it’s washed into the streets by rain water and dries up. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘N8, Intersection of New Canada Road and N17 High Road, Soweto, Johannesburg, 2010.’ A newly constructed road around a still-used tailings dam belonging to DRD Gold, which owns over 150 mine dumps across Johannesburg. Much of Johannesburg’s infrastructure is situated on land near to, or even on top of, old mining sites. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Sports Pitch, Central Johannesburg College, Crown Mines Site, Johannesburg, 2010.’ Football teams play in the shadow of one of Johannesburg’s largest mine dumps. The football pitch was built by DRD Gold who owns the land and mine dump. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Overlooking the Community of Davidsonville, Roodeport, Johannesburg, 2012.’ Photo: Jason Larkin

‘RDP Housing, Aalwyn Road, Riverlea, Johannesburg, 2010.’ New affordable housing constructed in front of a large mine dump that is being reprocessed for traces of gold. Many commercial and residential developments of the last few decades are near, or on, old mining sites containing hazardous waste, causing concern amongst residents and environmental groups. Photo: Jason Larkin

‘Communal Sunday Prayers, City Deep, Johannesburg, 2013.’ Photo: Jason Larkin

More than a century of gold mining has left towering piles of bleached mine waste, known as “tailings,” throughout Johannesburg’s landscape. The discovery of gold in 1886 led to it’s founding and transformed a small, isolated farming community into South Africa’s largest city. The extraction industry has been part of Johannesburg’s identity ever since, and the mountainous dumps have been a feature of the city so long that locals barely notice them.

“The tailings are the visual foundations of this important city,” says photographer Jason Larkin whose project Tales From The City Of Gold digs into social, political and economic forces rooted in the 19th century. “I don’t think many residents even think of them as being made by hand. They see them as just part of the ‘natural’ backdrop to the city.”

But they’re more than scenery. They may be a toxic time bomb.

Blowing in the Wind

The mining boom brought riches to some, but its aftermath is now a harbinger of woe for many. The tailings contain uranium, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals. While these elements occur naturally, they have been brought to the surface and concentrated far faster than would occur through erosion, if at all. There are more than 200 mining dumps containing six billion tons of waste. Year-round winds—ferocious during the summer—continually scatter dust from the tailings and coat the city. Johannesburg’s most disadvantaged residents bear the brunt of this toxic wind. Two million people—almost half of the city’s population—live in the old miners’ townships or newer informal settlements on or near the tailings.

“Most are economic migrants from either other districts in South Africa, or other southern African countries,” says Larkin. “The communities there are mostly the very poorest of South Africa, and mainly only black.”

During the late 19th century mining boom experienced European miners could not be imported fast enough, so mining companies relied on the cheap labor of African economic migrants. Workers were housed first in men-only “hostels.” Later, in the 1930s, black laborers were moved into settlements closer to the mines to keep the city center “white.” The establishment of Apartheid in 1948 cemented these racial divisions.

New townships, such as the infamous Soweto (South Western Township), were built on exposed land to the south of the mines and subject to the winds. Whites moved to wealthy northern suburbs sheltered by trees, planned development, and natural windbreaks.

When global gold prices dropped in the 1990s, economic recession hit. It also was becoming more difficult to extract sufficient quantities of gold. Many large mining corporations ceased operation and left their mountains of tailings behind. No studies have been able to accurately measure the public health impact of the tailings due to exposures being low-level but long term. Intense exposure to high levels of uranium will damage the kidneys, brain, liver, heart, and endocrine system, but it’s unclear what a lifetime of lower level exposure brings. The potential threat from the mine waste is referred to by the most fearful as “South Africa’s Chernobyl.”

Problems Bubbling Up

Water erosion increases the threat for those nearest the tailings. Rainwater filters through the mounds, picking up heavy metals, cyanide, and acids used in mining. This toxic water is called acid mine drainage and collects in orange pools.

“AMD is very easy to see,” says Larkin, “But so far it hasn’t come into the main city’s water supply, so no harm yet done to humans, unless they are drinking directly from the streams. What is very worrying is how much of this might be running down into the main aquifer below the city and how much damage it is doing to the vast network of water on which so much of the city and surrounding towns rely.”

Currently, monitoring of the environmental problems outweighs remediation. The fall of Apartheid and the establishment of democracy in South Africa brought with it more accountability and stricter regulation, but the cost of large-scale clean up is a burden no group wishes to take on alone. Former mining corporations, newer land owners, and regional and national governments are in constant disagreement about who should foot the bill.

Scraping Out a Living

The 200 mine dumps are far from dead space. The city grew around them and residents live on top of some. When Larkin first visited South Africa during the 2010 World Cup it was clear to him that the mine dumps were part of the fabric of the city. As he turned away from the stadium and polished facades toward these artificial topographies, Larkin found motor bike racing, shooting ranges, and even an outdoor cinema.

Recent rising gold prices and technological advances have also led to a resurgent small-scale mining. Not only did Larkin encounter lone individuals and artisans panning for gold, but also mining operations re-opening mines and revisiting the tailings.

“There is residual gold still in the dumps,” says Larkin, “Basically because the original extraction process wasn’t as effective as it is now, companies are re-mining these dumps and making millions of dollars on that latent gold.”

Just how much lingering gold can be found remains to be seen, as well as how injurious the tailings will be for those who live nearby.

The book Tales From The City Of Gold, published by Kehrer Verlag is available as a standard edition and as a collector’s edition.

Article source: http://www.wired.com/2014/06/jason-larkin-tales-from-the-city-of-gold/

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