By Billy Ntaote
A parliament sanctioned task-team has recently exposed shocking details of how Kao mine spilled 25 000 litres of waste into Kao River and down to Malibamatšo, 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 May 2018 report of Ad-hoc-Task-Team mandated to investigate the mine following incessant community protests that culminated in death of a villager on February 28 this year.
Findings of the report presented to Parliamentary Portfolio committee on Natural Resources, Tourism and Land cluster revealed that 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 network of small rivers flowing into the huge Malibamatšo river, the main river that forms Lesotho-South Africa owned Lesotho Highlands Water Project Katse dam whose waters are 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 collapsed buffer tank entered Kao river.
The report by the task-team came to light at a time South African High Commissioner Sello Moloto has 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 is 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 required expertise to advise on this matter, but 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 that 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 it “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, the 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 mines 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”.
Ralikariki further revealed shocking details pertaining to the mine’s decision to construct a new sewage tank.
“When the decision was made not to use steel buffer tank as initially planned, selecting brick/concrete buffer tank, the risk of collapsing of the concrete buffer tank was not assessed as risk at time of constructing the buffer tank, therefore the structural integrity of the buffer tank was questionable,” Ralikariki said.
In defence to the mine’s negligence when constructing its sewage tank without assessing risks, Ralikariki said after the spillage and release of treated water into the rivers, the mine took water samples from all the affected rivers to the University of the Free State Laboratories to determine contamination levels in the rivers.
Ralikariki cushioned the sewage spillage happened during a period of heavy rainfalls and results from laboratories showed “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 collapsed buffer tank entered the river”.
He said the mine reported the incident to the Department of Environment.
He said from the laboratories results, the conclusion made was the data presented did not show any significant impact to the environmental water quality system of the water courses of the Kao River and downstream to Malibamatšo River following the collapse of the buffer tank.
“We also implemented an immediate remedial action of adding chlorine to the spillage and clean-up of the area. The mine continued using the existing tank as it still has capacity to contain treated water,” Ralikariki said.
The Centre also learned that the mine has put in place other remedial actions to avoid future spillage by replacing the concrete buffer tank with a steel buffer tank.
“We also developed a Management of Change (MOC) procedure to include all levels of change.
“New catchment water dam has been constructed below the sewage buffer tank as an additional measure to prevent future potential spills, running into the Mabunyaneng Stream that flows into the Kao river.
“An environmental spillage treatment procedure has been reviewed and industry best practices have been adopted,” said Ralikariki.
On the other hand, it is surprising that the task-team report makes no mention of these measures alluded to by Ralikariki to have been put in place following the sewage spillage.
In an interview with the Centre, Damane said the report only points to just a few of the many challenges faced by the ministry of tourism, environment and culture on regulating mines in the country.
He said the mine has not only ignored its Environmental Management plan (EMP) but it has also disrespected the dictates of its EMP.
He told the Centre that the department has been working on holding the mine accountable for the sewage spillage since January 2017.
“This sewage pond issue resulted in us summoning them to the ministry and requesting them to implement certain measures to ensure this does not happen again,” he said.
But, Damane said what is worrying the most is that this contaminated water is consumed by communities’ down-stream the river and their animals and forms part of the Katse dam catchment sources.
Damane said the issue warranted a worst-case scenario measure of suing the company but was quick to add that it would be seen to be anti-development hence their decision to put in place certain measures that the mine should implement to avoid the spillage.
“This is a case that warrants us to sue the company, but we’ve not done so because it is not that easy. We want their investment, but they should comply to certain conditions we have put in place to minimise these problems,” said Damane.
Damane points that mining leases are regulated by both the ministry of mining and the national environmental secretariat, and proper regulation requires harmonious working relations between the two regulators.
“It is a challenge as we have to handle it without being anti-development,” he said.
Damane emphasised all requirements of the Environmental management plan should be implemented by the mine.
“He said his department’s major concern is the protection of the country’s environment and not to expel investors but they need to be kept in check to adhere to laws.
“It is shocking that in other countries the same mines we have here are obeying the laws and do protect the environment as they mine. This are very big blunders, in fact mining sector in our country doesn’t seem to respect our environment,” said Damane.
Damane said the ingestion of water contaminated by sewage could led to hospitalisation and death to victims.