AngloGold Ashanti taken to task for toxins

AngloGold Ashanti admitted to repeated toxic spillages near Stilfontein, and criminal charges have been laid against it. Robyn Joubert reports.

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If found guilty for contaminating water in Stilfontein in North West with radioactive water, AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) and its directors could be fined and personally held criminally liable. The Federation for Sustainable Environment (FSE) recently laid criminal charges against the mining company.

Not only AGA, but Mine Waste Solutions (MWS) could be held liable, because AGA acquired the Stilfontein dams from MWS in July 2012, and the alleged radioactive spillages already started in March 2011, when water leaked out of a tailings dam. Since 2008, two massive dams which store radioactive and toxic waste were being reprocessed for the recovery of gold.

FSE head Mariette Liefferink said repeated radioactive spillages were allegedly flowing onto an area with porous dolomitic rock, which affected underlying groundwater and could potentially contaminate the nearby Vaal River, posing a severe health risk to humans and livestock.

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In 2011, the FSE sent details of the radioactive spillages along with photographic evidence to the Department of Minerals and Energy, the National Nuclear Regulator and inspectorates at Water Affairs and the Department of Environmental Affairs. However, it fell on deaf ears. The FSE then pursued criminal action against AGA to pressure the company into taking action.

FSE said it did not wish to put a stop to mining activities. “Mining provides jobs and we acknowledge that the reworking of tailing dams may be the best long-term solution for historical contamination. But while it is being reprocessed there must be adequate measures in place to prevent pollution and future spillages. There must be rehabilitation and compensation for landowners and occupiers of the land for losses suffered,” Liefferink said.

The area was formerly a lucerne producing area but not much crop production remains as a result of air and water pollution. Liefferink said a cow also died following a spillage on 30 October 2012, with toxic water suspected to be the cause of death. AGA reportedly paid the owner of the cow for the loss. Flip Jooste, a former cattle farmer whose land borders the Stilfontein dam, had suffered repeated spillages onto his property.

The largest took place on 25 December 2012. Jooste said he had sold all his cattle after the spillages started. He was currently negotiating with AGA on the sale of the property. Jooste declined to comment further than making a plea to government departments to prevent the radioactive spillages, saying they posed “serious health threats”.

AGA spokesperson Alan Fine said the gold company had reported all water spillages to the relevant regulators. “AngloGold Ashanti takes full responsibility for any environmental incident resulting from its mining operations and remains committed to compliance to relevant regulations applicable to our operations. We further remain committed to ongoing engagement with key stakeholders,” Fine said.

No court date had yet been set.