South Africa

DISASTER

The Free State town that drowned in sludge after 12 years of warnings

The Free State town that drowned in sludge after 12 years of warnings
Rubble and power plugs hanging outsde a window after homes got damaged when the tailings dam burst open from the nearby local mine in Jagersfontein on 12 September 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

It’s too soon to start allocating blame, say the principal players. The facts are that at least one person died, hundreds were displaced and livestock was washed away when a mine tailings dam burst and Jagersfontein was flooded.

Jagersfontein is a small town in the Free State that sprang up during the diamond rush of the 1870s. In the early hours of Sunday 11 September tragedy struck when a slimes dam wall collapsed near the open-pit diamond mine, causing a mudslide and flooding.

At least one person died and hundreds were displaced. More than 500 animals were rescued; some had to be euthanised.

Owners of Free State diamond mine ‘were warned to cease operations two years ago’

The Charlesville area was hardest hit. Houses, personal belongings and livestock were washed away; cellphone towers, roads, powerlines and water supplies damaged.

Kopanong Mayor Xolani Tseletsele said he had been raising concerns about this particular dam, which is a few metres away from the community, for the past 12 years.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of relief organisation Gift of the Givers has called for donations of bottled water, blankets and mattresses, as well as antibiotics and feed for sheep.

In photos: See the destructive force of the Jagersfontein mine dam wall collapse

“A local church has opened its doors for shelter and accommodation,” said Sooliman. “Immediate requirements include bottled water, bulk food for cooking, blankets, mattresses, clothing, hygiene items, sanitary pads and diapers. Fodder for sheep will also be required. Gift of the Givers teams are packing supplies at Bethlehem, Graaff-Reinet, Gqeberha and Cape Town.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the site on Monday, followed by Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe on Tuesday.

Mantashe said a 2007 high court judgment that left the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) without jurisdiction over tailings dams was a dangerous mistake.

“It deprived this company and this mine of the opportunity to have regular mining inspectors visiting it,” he said. “To me, it confirms that this cannot be an operation that is given a different definition. It is a mining operation and therefore the DMRE must take full responsibility for the operations. That judgment, to me, was a mistake and it should be corrected.”

Mantashe was referring to the Free State High Court ruling in the matter of De Beers versus Ataqua Mining and the DMRE. The case dealt with the question of whether the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 deprived De Beers of ownership of minerals in tailings dumps, and if the DMRE had authority to grant prospecting or mining rights in pre-2002 dumps.

The collapsed dam (where mining byproducts are stored) is adjacent to the former diamond mine, shut in the 1970s by De Beers. The dam is now classified as a processing facility and is owned by Jagersfontein Developments (JD), a unit of the Dubai-based Stargems Group.

Tailings dumps or slimes dams often contain minerals that can be extracted, extending the economic lifespan of a mining operation.

De Beers won the 2007 court case, and the court held that tailings dumps are movables and thus ownership belongs to those who removed the minerals as they had occurred naturally in or on the earth, and the act could not control tailings dumps created before it was passed in 2002.

Mantashe said the Free State had many tailings dams and to allow jurisdiction of them to fall under the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), which happened after the judgment, was “a risk”.

JD told Daily Maverick Sonop Superkolong Consortium was the successful bidder for  Jagersfontein diamond mine when De Beers put it out to tender in 2010. Superkolong exited the transaction soon after, and Johann Rupert’s Reinet Investments took control. Stargems acquired Reinet’s shareholding in Jagersfontein in April 2022.


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Warnings over many years

Marius de Villiers, legal compliance officer at JD, told the media on Tuesday: “The processing facility obviously must accept the liability that comes with the operations and with the break of the dam wall. That a person died is tragic. We mustn’t try and put blame on people for what happened. Let the process continue and get done.

“You’ve got to rely on experts and engineering. I can show you pictures of this wall, three, four days before the accident, and you won’t be able to tell me there was a risk.”

However, community members said they had been raising concerns about the dam wall for years.

Kopung Ralikontsane, director-general in Free State’s Office of the Premier, said Jagersfontein was instructed by the government to cease operations two years ago.

“As the province, we find ourselves in a difficult situation as the mine owners were warned to stabilise their wall or cease operation… There are ongoing engagements with the mine owners,” he said.  

In February 2021, Kopanong Mayor Tseletsele warned on social media of potential threats the mine posed.

Department of Water and Sanitation spokesperson Sputnik Ratau confirmed to Daily Maverick that, after the department issued JD with a directive, it ceased operations in January 2021 to address the issues raised.

Ratau said the department had conducted site inspections and assessed all the reports and available information to ascertain compliance with the directive. Some of the risks identified had been addressed, such as installing new digital flow meters to accurately measure the volumes of waste disposed to the tailings dam and submitting quarterly reports of the coarse tailings depositions.

The department lifted restrictions on the facility in May 2021. “JD was, however, also advised that they should contact the DWS dam safety engineers to address the dam safety requirements on the dam break analysis report by SRK dated November 2020 and the emergency preparedness plan dated January 2021.

“JD has been submitting the reports regularly to DWS, including reports on stability of the dam, which was submitted to DWS in August, which report was confirming that the dam was stable.”

Working together

Mantashe said the high court ruling stopped his department from conducting mining inspections. Despite that, he wanted government departments to work together.

De Villiers said JD had put aside R20-million for interim relief funds. The money will help displaced residents, provide food parcels and settle medical bills.

De Villiers said that by midweek about R600,000 had been spent on accommodation for people displaced by the disaster. Other funds were allocated to restoring electricity and water supplies and assessing  levels of pollution in watercourses.

There will be an inquiry into the cause of the collapse. Mantashe said “it would be putting the cart before the horse” to speculate.

JD has also appointed an independent team to try to ascertain the facts. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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