Mine waste pollutes water exported to SA

BILLY NTAOTE

MASERU –A parliament sanctioned task-team has recently exposed shocking details of how Kao mine spilled 25 000 litres of waste into the Kao River and down to Malibamatšo River, contaminating Lesotho’s lucrative “white gold” downstream into Katse Dam.On December 14, 2016, a sewage pond built by Kao mine, that is operated by Storm Mountain Diamonds, ruptured and spilled 25 cubic meters (25 000 litres) of sewage into Kao river, said the May 2018 report of Ad-hoc-Task-Team mandated to investigate the mine following incessant community protests that culminated in the death of a villager on February 28.

Findings of the report presented to the Parliamentary Portfolio committee on Natural Resources, Tourism and Land cluster revealed that the sewage pond of the mine “collapsed on 14 December 2016 and spilled 25 cubic meters of sewage into the river which polluted the water downstream and affected community use for various needs”.Kao River forms part of a network of small rivers flowing into the huge Malibamatšo River, the main river that forms the Lesotho-South Africa owned Lesotho Highlands Water Project Katse dam whose water is harvested for domestic and industrial consumption in South Africa.

The mine’s corporate chief executive officer Mohale Ralikariki admitted to MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism that the mine’s sewage tank indeed collapsed in December 2016.He was, however, quick to add that contamination was not significant as the rivers’ levels were already high above the point of contamination all the way to where the waste water from a collapsed buffer tank entered the Kao River.The report by the task-team came to light at a time South African High Commissioner Sello Moloto had appealed to Lesotho government about the contamination of water by mining activities at the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Phase II site.

Moloto had said the implementation of Phase II, like any other cross-border project of its magnitude was experiencing various teething problems, chief among which he mentioned: “the continuing issuing of mining licences within the environmentally sensitive areas of the dams which poses a danger of environmental degradation and ultimately the contamination of water”.The LHWP is considered one of the most successful cross-border water collaboration schemes between the two states and has, according to LHDA water sales, generated M8.3 billion revenue for Lesotho from 1996 to December 2017.

Despite Ralikariki’s low contamination assurances, the findings of the task-team facilitated by director of environment Motsamai Damane indicate the mine was not only negligent but was also flouting laws regulating its operations thus painting a gloomy picture on extractive industries’ operations near gigantic LHWP water sources.The task-team noted that the mine did not construct the sewage ponds to engineering standards, nor did they have the sewage pond design and structure approved as per the requirements of the Water Act No. 15 of 2008.

This, the task-team reports, led to weak structure which collapsed at the point of commissioning by the mine.In its investigations, the task-team also found out that the Ministry of Water, which issues permits for construction of dams and water use, does not have approved specifications for such structures but has the required expertise to advise on this matter, who were not consulted.

“Further, it was noted that there is no set system that will make it easy for a developer to meet requirements of the relevant laws he has to comply with.“Despite all these observations, the mine was required by its environmental Management Plan (EMP), which is a legally binding document, to have developed and submitted for approval a pollution event management and response plan (Emergency Plan),” reads part of the task-team’s report.

The task-team also notes that according to a risk assessment report of 2012, the mine claimed it has an Emergency Plan, which was not implemented at the occurrence of the sewage spillage into the river.This failure to implement the emergency plan at occurrence of sewage spillage, the task-team said, “casts doubts on the factuality” of the report made by the mine.

The task-team recommended that “the Department of Environment coordinate a technical team comprising officers from the Ministry of Water, Public Works and Transport, and Mining to go and check the state of the sewage ponds and instruct the mine accordingly as soon as possible.“Insists on the mine to formulate requisite procedures and protocols that will ensure full compliance to the legislation.

“The mine authorities to urgently develop the required emergency preparedness plans and other management tools as stipulated in their EMP”.MNNCIJ understands that the effluent pollution could cause rapid algae growth, starving rivers of the oxygen that insects, fish and other wildlife need to survive, which in turn also affects animals.The bacteria, pathogens and parasites, the Centre understands, that are found in untreated sewage can also threaten people’s health, causing deadly diseases like gastroenteritis, E.coli and salmonella.

In his response to questions, Ralikariki narrates that “on Saturday, December 10, 2016, the walls of newly constructed sewage treatment buffer tank failed and collapsed following the changeover of overflow from the septic tank to the newly constructed buffer tank”. He said this collapse happened just as the mine’s 65 cubic metres sewage treatment buffer tank was half way full with effluent from the septic tank, the buffer tank collapsed. He said the root causes of this collapse were attributed to “inadequate management of change system; the sewage buffer tank was built on the slab that was initially meant to provide a platform for steel buffer tank”.

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