The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA), has instructed Zululand Anthracite Colliery (ZAC), to expand its water monitoring sampling points beyond the initial four areas that it had identified.
EDTEA MEC Ravi Pillay on January 6 said this was in response to a slurry material spill due to a dam wall failure at the ZAC mine on December 24.
The dam's capacity is 3 183 m3 and about half of the stored slurry material is estimated to have spilled into the nearby Mvalo river.
“The spill was caused by the failure of the slurry pond end wall. This slurry pond end wall was newly installed, following the loading out of the dry slurry during November 2021. A further aggravating factor in the end wall failure was the heavy rainfall four days prior to the failure," the MEC noted.
To fully assess pollution into the critical riverine system, the EDTEA has instructed ZAC to extend sampling from the initial Umvalo to Mfolozi river, to include the estuarine zone of Isimangaliso Wetland Park.
“The department officials have been on site to observe the clean-up processes and establish more facts about the extent of the spill and the potential threat to public health and the environment.
"We note that ZAC mine has reported that no claims of damages, death or loss of livestock have been reported to them following the incident. While appreciating that report, we will however follow our own procedures and investigations," Pillay said.
Officials of the departments of Water and Sanitation and Mineral Resources and Energy, which is the competent authority, as well as the EDTEA, have already conducted site visits.
The Department of Water and Sanitation issued a written directive following a verbal one, while EDTEA is continuing to interact with all other relevant authorities.
During the site visit, the teams from the various departments have reported that no more spill could be observed as the rains had ceased. It was also reported that clean-up operations are in progress laregly through manual labour, with an excavator moving out the material up to the dump.
Pillay stated that water monitoring (both ground and surface water) was taking place and that the mine was awaiting results from the laboratory.
To assess possible damage caused to surrounding host communities, Pillay said the ZAC mine was engaging the relevant local community forums and structures to identify any such damage and discuss resolutions thereof.
“ZAC has a long-standing history of working closely with host communities, a policy we are proud of implementing. Over the last five years, ZAC has supplied treated, potable, piped water to both livestock and for human consumption in the area. ZAC continues to do this, at 23 communal taps, at a rate of 2 511 000 litres a month,” said ZAC environmental superintendent Msawenkosi Buthelezi.
On the 5th and 6th of January, ZAC management held meetings with the ZAC Community Forum structures through which the mine regularly interacts with host communities. The meetings received a detailed briefing. Community leaders were generally satisfied with the manner in which ZAC has handled the incident, working together with the host communities themselves as well as relevant authorities to ensure continued support for livelihoods and economic activities.
Pillay has directed his department to set up a Joint Operations Committee in the meantime to further probe the matter.
“I have already written to my relevant national counterparts, Ministers of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu and Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, as well as the mayors of Zululand and Ulundi municipalities, to fully apprise them of the latest developments,” Pillay said.
Buthelezi said it was working with the various government departments to ensure all legal requirements were met.
Further, it noted that the end wall of the affected slurry pond had been rebuilt and the company was awaiting a professional engineer certification before the pond was brought back into service.
"The integrity of the other slurry pond's containment walls will also be checked by a professional engineer and, where necessary, improvements will be made.
"In the medium term, a filter press will be installed in the coal washing plant, to remove the slurry from the water, and therefore minimise the likelihood of slurry spilling in future. This action is planned for completion by the end of March 2022," he added.