Living in fear of a toxic tsunami (Part 1)

Date: 13 Apr 2008
Far West Rand residents claim poisoning, writes Sheree Bega The pain started in Dawn Potgieter's hands. Each time the 62-year-old ate vegetables from her garden, her fingers - already badly afflicted by arthritis - would swell severely. But it would be months before she would make the connection between the vegetable garden, overlooking the seemingly pristine Gerhard Minnebron wetlands in the Wonderfonteinspruit catchment area near Potchefstroom, and her swollen hands and persistent allergies. "The doctor asked me: 'Where do you get mine water to water your vegetable garden?'" Potgieter recalls. "Then we knew our water was contaminated." Something was indeed very wrong. Last October, months after the Potgieters had stopped watering their asparagus and onions from their borehole, samples taken by the National Nuclear Regulator showed the vegetables were contaminated with radioactive material. In February, however, the regulator backtracked on its earlier findings, declaring the foodstuffs safe. For the Potgieters, who bought their 200ha stretch of land to try their hand at peat farming for South Africa's mushroom industry four years ago, there's no doubt. "When we went away on holiday, Dawn's swelling and allergies would disappear," explains Paul, her husband. "We can't use the vegetables from our garden, and the water from our borehole is full of lead. With such high contamination, we could send toys back to China for lower lead levels." Dawn interjects: "They picked up traces of lead in my liver months after I had drunk the water." Today, the Potgieters survive on bottled water - at a huge financial cost - while their dream of farming has been shattered. "It was only after being in operation for a while that we realised what we were selling to the people was harmful," reveals Paul. "We had to stop." The Potgieters aren't the only farmers faced with the reality of heavy-metal and radioactive pollution. For over a century, the catchment of the Wonderfonteinspruit, which flows between Randfontein and Potchefstroom, has been prized for its rich gold deposits. Mining groups Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, DRD Gold and AngloGold continue to scour its earth for lucrative underground treasure. But their mining activity has not come without a price. Several studies in the past decade have identified the Wonderfonteinspruit as a site of significant heavy-metal and radioactive contamination, including uranium contained in its sediment, largely due to gold mining waste. Mariette Liefferink, an environmental justice activist, who has devoted the past decade to the region's clean-up, says gold mining has had a significant detrimental effect. While "mines increase profits for shareholders", the public continue to be exposed to radioactive material. Streams are being contaminated due to surface run-off and seepage from tailings dams, and gaping sinkholes are being formed. The Potgieters have had enough. This week they revealed they are poised for legal action against the mines operating in the area. "We need to move out as fast as we can with the best interests of our family in mind," says Paul. "Our investment here is worth well over R10-million." On a tour of the region this week, residents showed mine dumps ridden with sinkholes - most of the land beneath is permeable dolomite - "poisonous" stormwater canals and stream contamination. "All these [scientific] reports indicate that the situation is serious, but we cannot get the regulators to regulate. They are completely influenced by the mining houses. Unfortunately, the rand and dollar have the most influence," says Paul. Green mealies produced on third-generation farmers Sas and Douw Coetzee's farm, Blaauwbank, outside Carletonville, were once cherished. But for the past eight years the Coetzee family farm has ground to a halt. There is so much uranium - a by-product of mining - to be found in the sediment of their dam, which flows along the Wonderfonteinspruit, that authorities have declared it a radioactive "contamination hotspot". No one would have known this had the brothers not decided to break up the dam's wall because of a sediment build-up to obtain more capacity for irrigation in 2001. The Potchefstroom municipality immediately picked up uranium in the town's drinking water and the brothers were instructed never to alter the dam wall or allow their cattle to be watered in it, as they could agitate the uranium-heavy sediment. It spelt the end of farming for Douw (28) and Sas (34). "We have a moral responsibility not to allow this to enter the food chain," says Douw. /2. . . . .