Villagers from Patising in the Mokhotlong district are demanding a safety audit for Letšeng Diamond Mine’s slimes dams after the mine dismissed fears that they could be swallowed up by flooding if the dams and impoundments burst.
The villagers’ adviser, United States-based consultant Steve Emerman, has offered to do the safety audit to help the High Court make an informed decision. Emerman owns Malach Consulting, which specialises in groundwater and mining issues.
“Without actual engineering reports such as dam safety audits, there is no way the court can be in a position to determine the safety or otherwise of the dam,” Emerman said in his confirmatory affidavit.
This was after Letšeng chief executive, Kelebone Leisanyane insisted the mine’s “dams are safe” and are “not a disaster waiting to happen”. He cautioned the villagers not to live in constant fear as the unlikely event of a wall failure “would [not] take place in an instant”.
“Instead, signs of collapse will develop gradually. Should it become apparent that there is a chance of a major dam wall collapse … all people are warned in advance to move to designated safe areas,” Leisanyane added.
Leisanyane was responding to a highly unusual application in which 19 villagers asked the High Court in August this year to order Letšeng to relocate them.
This followed the collapse of talks between the mine and the Maluti Community Development Forum, an interest group that defends the rights of the poor communities in mining areas.
Patising village is located downslope of Letšeng, an active mine.
“If we could, we would have relocated long time ago,” noted the first applicant, ‘Mapontšo Lematla, in her founding affidavit. “We live in constant fear of what could become of us and our properties should the dams fail.”
According to Lematla, the mine met the Patising community in 2012 with the purpose of identifying effective emergency plans in the event that the dams fail. They were provided with sirens and two-way radios to sound the alarm.
“This gesture by Letšeng only lent credence to our fear that there was a disaster waiting to happen … If Letšeng was 100% sure that the chance of the dams failing was zero, there would be no need to take those measures,” she argued.
Leisanyane responded that “…simply because Letšeng has put in place plans to deal with dams’ failure … doesn’t mean that the dams will fail. Notionally, failure is possible, but in Letšeng’s view it is highly unlikely.”
He said the risks associated with the dams are managed on an ongoing basis involving independent professional engineers, operating contractor and the Letšeng employees.
“All these people are constantly monitoring the dams for cracks, for sloughing, for erosion, for tunnelling, wets spots or seepage. All of this is geared towards safety and to guard against … failure.”
Not convinced by Leisanyane’s submission, Lematla reiterated in her replying affidavit that the villagers live in constant fear. She argued that Leisanyane has failed to testify on the safety of the dam and “is not even qualified” to do so.
“Mr Leisanyane is not qualified to be telling us all this information because he is not an engineer. He is making numerous references to qualified engineers without the backing of those engineers. Mr Leisanyane is actually testifying to hearsay.
“[The] Patising community … are not qualified in dam safety because we are not engineers. Neither is Mr Leisanyane. So far, beyond his own say-so, Mr Leisanyane has not demonstrated or proved the dam’s safety to anybody’s satisfaction.
“I am advised that without actual engineering reports such as dam safety audits, there is no way to determine the safety of the dam. I … believe that piece of advice because it comes from a qualified expert [named] Steven Emerman,” Lematla added.
Emerman has also filed a confirmatory affidavit saying that Leisanyane’s answering affidavit did not contain any information “insofar as the safety of the specific dam is concerned”.
“What is attached to Mr Leisanyane’s affidavit is nothing more than a list of inspections which do not talk to safety of the dam,” Emerman noted.
He suggested that experts for both parties be allowed to participate in the proceedings in the form of actually visiting the dam, carrying out own investigations and filing independent reports or even appearing before court if necessary.
Apart from the risks posed by the dams, Lematla said that “the stream water that we used to enjoy is no longer safe for our consumption and washing … we are now fearful … because we develop itching skin whenever we use the water, something that was never the case before.”
Leisanyane said “the allegations are misplaced”.
“What the applicants do not disclose is that Letšeng has constructed a potable water supply system where water is collected and pumped by pipe up to a reservoir above the Patising village and released to the village below via two taps,” he said. “During the process the water is also chlorinated and made safe for consumption for the community.”
Leisanyane added”: “The fact is that the water has to be fetched from these taps … Letšeng’s investigations have disclosed that people from Patising use the water they collect over and over again. In the process bacteria gets into the water. This in turn, after many uses, renders it unsafe for washing purposes.
He added the mine cannot accept responsibility for the repeated reuse of potable water over until it becomes unfit for washing. “The itchy skin condition is probably the result of washing with water infected by bacteria,” Leisanyane said.
Lematla hit back that Patising residents “have never changed the manner in which we collect and use water.
“From what Mr Leisanyane is saying, it is clear that Letšeng has not tested the water for any contamination. Letšeng is now blaming the community … without any scientific evidence.”