Our Burning Planet

MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism

Villagers take mining firm to court over polluted blue water, toxic to plants and animals

Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project will be built at the confluence of the contamined Khubeli (left) and Senqu rivers. This place will be submerged at the completion of this project. (Photo: Pascalinah Kabi)

A leading mining company in Lesotho, Letšeng Diamond Mine, has admitted in confidential reports its operations are polluting water systems that poor, rural communities rely on. But the company denies this in public. 

The Patising and Maloraneng communities living near the mine share the surrounding natural water sources. But residents say dark blue water runs in the contaminated streams, which is causing illness and death.

Letšeng Diamond Mine, which started operating in 2004 and is 70% owned by London-based shareholder Gem Diamonds as well as the Lesotho government, denies any wrongdoing. The mine claims it is managing pollution levels that are a by-product of operations. 

In a confidential report to Lesotho’s Department of Environment, seen by the MNN, the mine admits: “Seepages from the waste rock dumps and overflows from dirty water containment facilities allow receiving surface water environments to become polluted with especially nitrates and sulphate”. 

Chief executive officer of Letšeng Diamond Mine, Kelebone Leisanyane submitted a report in January this year to the Department of Environment, under the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture, in line with the Environmental Act 2008.

The social and environmental management plan compliance audit report states: “Standards for nitrate are consistently exceeding in Patising [sic].

“Despite the implementation of several mitigatory measures to clean the seepage [dilution and engineered wetlands], the system remains polluted with nitrate to levels exceeding domestic and livestock guidelines.

“Standards for the nitrates are consistently exceeded in the Patising, Qaqa and RTZ systems while biomonitoring results show the Patiseng system to be in a poor condition, mostly owing to elevated salts and organic pollution [biannual water quality monitoring report of March 2021].”

The report further reveals the RTZ system, a structure built to treat water in the mine, has recorded increasing levels of nitrate and sulphate since 2014, which suggests the mine has been aware of its impact on Mokhotlong’s water sources for years. 

In a telephonic interview with MNN, Leisanyane said: “The issue of sulphates and nitrates in a mining area is one of the things that are being managed on a regular basis because the mine uses explosives and that is something which is there.” 

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Section 4 of the Environment Act 2008 compels companies to take all reasonable measures to “mitigate undesirable effects not contemplated in the environmental impact statement and shall report those measures to the director annually or whenever the director requires”.

To achieve this, companies compile their social and environmental management plans (Semp), which are externally audited before being submitted to the Department of Environment, when requested by the director of environment, Motsamai Damane.   

In Letšeng’s case, the audit was carried out by South African environmental consultancy, Shangoni Management Services. In its findings, Shangoni refers to previous reports, such as the March 2021 biannual water quality monitoring report, which confirms water contamination allegations against Letšeng. 

While Shangoni notes that there was high level of compliance on the mine’s Semp, the consultancy lists six non-compliance issues, which include activities affecting the surrounding clean water environment “through seepages and release of affected water – high nitrate and sulphate concentrations”. 

Shangoni’s findings coincide with two independent research studies undertaken by the Maluti Community Development Forum, an interest group that defends the rights of Lesotho’s poor communities in mining areas as well as a masters study by Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) student Bokang Shakhane

The forum’s report states: “A high concentration of nitrates [NO3] was found in water samples near tailing sites in Letšeng and Maloraneng villages”.

“While most natural streams in Lesotho have been found extremely clean in terms of water quality, nitrate levels up to 18 mg/l are not uncommon. However, the levels found in the samples from Letšeng and Maloraneng exceeded the detection limit of the measurement instrument [absorbance of 3 000, equivalent to 86.18 mg/l NO3].”

The forum engaged experts from the National University of Lesotho to test water samples through ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometry

Reacting to the forum’s findings on 29 March 2022, Leisanyane issued a statement, noting “in line with our commitment to transparency, we make regular and full disclosures to the appropriate stakeholders in Lesotho”.

The third CPUT report, by Shakhane, states “the results indicated the concentration of nitrates/nitrites in the range from 0.13 – 167 mg/l and 0 – 67.8 mg/l during dry and wet seasons respectively”. 

“The nitrates and nitrites, on the other hand, proved to be mainly point sources because they were highest at Patising stream which carries some effluent from Letšeng diamond slimes dams,” Shakhane said.

He says ammonia, also distributed across all the sampled locations but highest at Patising, ranged from 0.17 – 1.89 mg/l and 0.15 – 0.68 mg/l in the dry and wet season respectively. 

Another heavy metal, copper ranged from 0.039 – 0.219 mg/l and 0.011 – 0.029 in the dry and wet season respectively while the levels of lead ranged from 0 – 0.020 mg/l and that of chromium were found to lie between 0 and 0.046 mg/l. 

“The results obtained in the present study indicated that there was a definite pollution in the Khubelu River catchment with respect to HMs [heavy metals] and nutrients studied,” Shakhane said, stressing that these metals can have serious health implications for all animals and plants. 

He recommended an appropriate joint monitoring programme by the Departments of Environment and Water Affairs be done in order to minimise the possible impacts. 

Leisanyane told MNN: “We are not getting into these research-related questions because we do not have time, they are highly academic”. 

The big question

In September 2020, 19 Patising villagers took the Letšeng Diamond Mine to court, fearing for their lives in the event a slimes dam, upstream of their village, collapses. 

Mapontšo Lematla, one of the 19 villagers, argued that the mine was contaminating freshwater sources. 

Leisanyane claimed water pollution allegations were misplaced when responding to the unusual high court application Lematla and 18 other villagers filed in court. The case is pending. 

Yet the report to the Department of Environment, which Leisanyane signed off and submitted, indicates that the return water dam receives seepage as well as stormwater from the surrounding catchment, resulting in frequent overflow of dirty water into the catchment. 

The report further states that although an access road is used as a storm water diversion to the north of the dam, “no such attenuation or diversion structure is located south of the dam and clean water is allowed to freely drain into the dam and resulting overflows from the dam into the Patising catchment”. 

“As a consequence, the Patising system consistently exceeds the legal and adopted standards for nitrate”. 

According to the report, the mine has known that it was recording “increasing levels of nitrate and sulphate since 2014”. 

On 20 April this year, Leisanyane told MNN sulphates and nitrates are “byproducts of our work, we monitor them on a regular basis”.

“We have to [regularly monitor them] because they are the byproducts of using explosives and all mines that use explosives do that [monitoring],” Leisanyane said. 

Now the question is, did Leisanyane commit perjury when he told the court in September 2020 the water contamination allegations were misplaced?  

Minister confirms pollution 

As part of its poverty mitigation strategy, the Lesotho government is currently implementing an environmental rehabilitation programme which employs unskilled labour in different communities. 

Forestry, Range and Soil Conservation Minister Motloli Maliehe officiated a tree-planting event for the Metseletsele programme, which was held at Maloraneng for the Paea-lea-Itlhatsoa community in 2020. 

“We once planted trees next to the village [Maloraneng]. As we were watering [the trees], collecting water from the stream [Maloraneng] and pouring it into the tree holes, that soil changed immediately and there was a blue layer on top of it, depicting the very same blue water that we regularly witness,” Moletsane said.  

Moletsane says Maliehe is well aware of their grievances with Letšeng on the water pollution saga.  

“I think his surname was something like Maliehe. He is a minister responsible for the Metseletsele projects or Forestry Ministry. He took our issues and said he would engage the minister of mining to see how best these issues can be handled,” Moletsane said. 

In a brief interview with MNN, Maliehe confirmed that he saw the blue water in the Maloraneng stream. 

“Yes, I agree that I witnessed the water contamination with my own eyes but that is not my responsibility [to deal with this issue at ministerial level], the ministry responsible is that of the environment,” Maliehe said. 

Who is fooling who? 

According to Shangoni Management Services, the mine supplies water to communities whose surface water is contaminated by its activities. 

“Letšeng supplies water to two communities where surface water sources are contaminated with nitrate to the extent that it is unusable for drinking water,” Shangoni Management Services said in a leaked report the mine submitted to the Department of Environment. 

In Patising alone, the mine yielded to community pressure and constructed a solar-powered water project, which pumps water from the Khubelu River into a tank for purification. 

Leisanyane says the mine supplies potable water to the communities if nitrate and sulphate levels in the water are too high, which happens during drought seasons. 

“If we discover that our own set standards, which are way above the South African standards because Lesotho does not own country standards, are at the level which does not make us happy, indeed we supply them with water different from that they would be using because we must live and there is nothing we can do,” Leisanyane said. 

This is, however, contrary to the public position Letšeng has taken on water contamination allegations. 

Shangoni has since advised Letšeng to continue with the current investigation and studies linked to the bio-remediation plan for surface water pollutants. 

The solar-powered system has collapsed due to the overflowing Khubelu River and in 2022, Letšeng Diamond Mine succumbed to mounting pressure from villagers and constructed a borehole in Patising. DM/OBP

Pascalinah Kabi is a Bertha Foundation Fellow.

 

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