JAGERSFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA – An earthen wall carrying muddy tailings of diamond mining has grown over the years to resemble a vast, towering plateau. The dam has been suspended like a freezing tsunami over clean swathes of monopoly-like homes in the rural mining town of Jagersfontein in South Africa, alarming residents who fear its collapse.
“We’ve seen that one day this thing is going to explode,” said Mimani Paulos, a machine operator at the dam for the past decade.
Residents’ worst fears came true this month when a section of the dam collapsed, sending a thunderous rush of gray sludge through the community that killed at least one person, destroyed 164 homes, and transformed a six-mile stretch of neighborhoods and grassy fields. In an ash wasteland.
The Jagersfontein disaster has caused alarm in a country where dams piling up of mining waste, known as tailings, are part of the landscape. Experts estimate that South Africa has hundreds of tailings dams, which mining watchers say is a legacy of a exploitative industry that extracts lucrative gems for jewelry stores overseas, while poor communities are burdened with toxic waste at home.
Residents of the town of Jagersfontein, home to one of the world’s oldest diamond mines, have seen a wall of waste pile up, looming over their homes and streets. But there wasn’t much they could do to stop it because it’s big business.
The consortium that bought mining tailings from the mine’s previous owner, De Beers, was sifting through the tailings to extract any diamonds left behind – an increasingly popular branch of mining. In doing so, the process was accumulating more waste, and government oversight was lax. Some miners were frightened when their colleagues reported leaks in the dam.
Mariette Leverrink, CEO of Sustainable Environment ConsortiumIt is an environmental organization focused on mining. “The damage to the ecosystem, to human life, to future generations – the stakes are high.”
The international mining industry had promised better performance after a Similar dam collapse in Brazil He was killed three years ago More than 250 people. Some of the leading mine operators have collaborated to develop standards for dam tailings. But many smaller operators, such as the one in Jagersfontein, do not follow standards and lack the resources and experience to manage tailings dams, Ms Liefferink said.
Marius de Villiers, legal compliance officer for Jagersfontein Development operating in the mine, said he complied with all requirements set by regulators in South Africa. He said the dam was inspected regularly, and an engineering report from July declared it to be structurally sound.
“We didn’t even think that something like this would happen,” said Mr. De Villiers. While the company was still investigating the breaking of the dam, he said, “it must accept the responsibility that comes with operations and with outages.”
“This thing is going to explode.”
At about 2 a.m. on Sunday, September 11, a truck driver at the levee discovered a crack in the facade, several workers there said that day in interviews. The workers said the driver reported this to the foreman, who checked him but did nothing.
Joe McCallaghani, the miner, said he did not see the crack himself, but spoke to the driver as they finished their shift.
“He said, I’ll tell you, this thing is going to explode,” said Mr. McCallaghani, 45, recalling his speech. “They didn’t take it seriously,” he added of management.
Mr. de Villiers and Johan Kombrink, the plant manager, denied there was any report of a crack early that morning.
The dam wall collapsed between six and seven in the morning. Some residents are angry at the prospect of being alerted earlier.
Rio Rita Brettenbach, whose house is near the embankment, stood on a chair in the kitchen while a hail of mud poured towards her. I swept her off the chair and ran out of the house. Stuck in the raging current, Breitenbach, 39, said she would float on her back and row in the mud to keep her head above water.
“I was praying that I would survive,” she said.
She had finally come to rest on a farm, where she was found by the police – more than six miles from her home.
The sludge wiped out much of two residential neighborhoods in the south and east. Fields stretching for miles looked like frozen cement lakes, some filled with worn-out cars and sunken electricity poles.
Jack Sivaka was visiting his mother across town when the dam broke. He stared from afar in horror – his three-bedroom house was washing, as far as he knew, his wife and one of his sons inside.
“I thought they were dead,” he said.
To his relief, his wife eventually called his mother to tell him she had made it to a shelter.
Now he has to rebuild a house he bought 20 years ago for 40,000 rand ($2,300), and now it has completely lost its front end.
Mr. Sivaka had worked at the mine shortly after it reopened in 2010, but quit after four years because conditions were poor, he said.
“I wasn’t happy,” he said, “with the pressures of mine.”
But the problems of the mine still haunted him.
With the first diamonds mined by colonial settlers in 1870, the Jagersfontein mine is a relic of the diamond rush that often exploited black South Africans while enriching white owners. Produced a 650 carat diamond, among the largest in the world, acquired by British merchants and cut jubilee diamondin honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
De Beers, the global mining giant, ran the mine from 1932 to 1971. It then remained idle, but in the early 2000s De Beers sought to capitalize on improved technology to extract minerals from the tailings. I sued for the right to mine without a mining license and He received a judgment in 2007.
De Beers then sold the remains in Jagersfontein in 2010 to a consortium that eventually came under the control of Johann Rupert, a South African billionaire whose companies own luxury brands such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. In April, just six months before the collapse, Mr. Robert’s holding company, Reinet Investments SCA, sold all of its shares in Jagersfontein Development to Stargems, a Dubai-based diamond manufacturer, according to Stargems إعلان ad.
Reinet did not respond to requests for comment.
Companies could be sued for violating South African environmental and water laws, or they could be forced to pay damages, said Tracy Lynn Field, a law professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who specializes in environmental and mining law. She said government officials may also have to respond.
The 2007 ruling in the De Beers case overturned liability for state mineral administration waste dams. Instead, due to the treatment of tailings in the dams, the Department of Water and Sanitation was left to oversee, despite the limited experience in mining, Ms Field said.
Residents said they were excited when the mine came back to life in 2010, believing it would create jobs.
But soon they were coughing up all the dust in the air, watching anxiously nearly twice the earthen dam frontage rise.
“We kept saying, ‘What if something happened here?'” What if it collapses? “
Concerns rose in recent years when residents said they periodically saw water seep through the dam wall. The mayor of Jagersfontein, Zolani Tselitsel, said community members had raised their concerns with officials from the water department.
But Mr Kombrink, the plant manager, denied that there was a leakage problem with the dam, or that staff had reported holes in the interface. He attributed any moisture to rainwater run-off.
According to a copy of the Water Department’s directive, the inspectors visited the dam, and in January 2021, they ordered a halt to the operation, citing several violations. Chief among them was that the facility disposed of more than two and a half times as much waste in the dam as it was allowed to in 2020—and continued to dispose of waste even after management officials asked it to stop.
Five months later, management vacated the facility to reopen, noting in a note that Jagersfontein Development had agreed to closely inspect and install new equipment to reduce the sewage discharged into the dam. Although the Water Department said in its memo that Jagersfontein’s development still needs to address the dam safety issues raised in an independent engineering report, it did not provide any guidance or deadline for the company to do so.
Richard Spur, an attorney with decades of experience litigating mining cases, said it was unusual for water department officials, “after finding that this high-profile report demonstrated grave danger,” to allow it to reopen.
Sputnik Ratu, a spokesperson for the water department, said the dam was allowed to reopen while safety issues were being addressed because dam officials had already met other conditions.
In 2018, Jagersfontein Development built a new section of the dam that will increase its capacity by 30% and increase profitability, according to a 2019 annual report provided by Reinet Investments.
Even with this expansion, the dam still had capacity issues – it had applied for a permit to dump waste into its original mining pit, a National Heritage site.
satellite image analysis Geologist Dave Betley, said a measure taken after the collapse by the data and analytics company shows that from August 1 to 13, the corner of the dam that broke became slightly warped, indicating weakness. at the University of Hull, England. It was the new section, he said, that collapsed.
He said mining companies and regulators with the right expertise should have picked up on those warning signs.
For Mr. Sephaka, the former miner whose home was destroyed, this was the latest disturbing chapter in the long life of a miner who felt it brought little benefit to society.
“It hurts,” he said as he inspected the wreckage.
John Elgon reported from Jagersfontein, and Lynsey Shuttle from Johannesburg.
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