Photograph by: Ashley Kemp
Van Wyk, 48, lives in Westonaria on the southwestern outskirts of Johannesburg, surrounded by four major mines which over the last 120 years extracted gold and uranium.
Most of the mines closed down 11 years ago, when pumping of underground water reserves also stopped.
Now researchers worry that toxic mine water is rising toward the surface and seeping into nearby water supplies, contaminating rivers with a cocktail of acidic and sometimes radioactive waste.
“My concern is that I use borehole water which could be contaminated. I sell peaches and vegetables to the hawkers and they sell it to the community. What if the vegetables are contaminated and we don’t know that,” Van Wyk said.
Activists fear rising water levels in the mines have created an underground time bomb that could threaten the country’s nearby financial capital Johannesburg in 16 months.
The threats are massive: groundwater contamination, health risks like cancers, poisoned soils, and fears for the city’s buildings.
“The matter has to be addressed with great urgency,” said Mariette Liefferink who heads the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.
“Acid mine drainage is as corrosive as swimming pool acid but it also contains a cocktail of radioactive and toxic heavy metal.”
Toxic waters are now lurking just about half a kilometre in mined chambers below surface but rising by 30 centimetres (one foot) a day, even before the seasonal rains get underway which could increase the rate threefold.
The government says the heavy metal-laced swill could hit enter the last safety buffer, an area stretching 150 metres below surface, by early 2012.
But it believes South Africans should not be panicking yet, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel dismissing fears that Johannesburg residents would be sloshing around the streets in gumboots as ridiculous.
“It’s urgent but it’s not a crisis,” said Marius Keet, a senior regional water affairs official.
“But we’re not supposed to reach that stage – we have to do something before that.”
The state says it has a year to find a solution. A new ministerial committee produced a report in October, but has not released the findings.
In July, the water affairs department warned of catastrophic results if Johannesburg’s groundwater was contaminated or mines began decanting below the city centre.
“We will not allow that – it’s definitely not going to happen. It will not decant in the city of Johannesburg,” Keet told AFP.
Toxic mine water surfaced eight years ago just west of Johannesburg, and still flows out of the ground during heavy rains.
“The underground mining basin is now flooding and has flooded with acid mine drainage to a point that it now spills out on to the surface,” said Liefferink.
The run-off has poisoned soil, made a dam radioactive and wiped out life in affected waters, she said.
South Africa has 6,000 abandoned and derelict mines — many run by firms now out of business, leaving the state responsible for 70 percent of them.
But government lacks the 1.5 billion rands (217.6 million dollars, 156 million euros) needed for a 10-year rehabilitation plan.
Just one pump to remove the water costs 218 million rands, but the current budget for this is 14 million.
“Where the basins are flooding, there are no management plans in place. Where it has flooded in the western basin, it’s now just crisis management,” said Liefferink.
“What is lacking here is the political will and commitment to implement these plans and also to apportion liability.”