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some two decades ago, South Africa's powerful asbestos mining companies closed shop. Most of them left open waste dumps of the deadly fibre to be spread by wind and water. Now, the University of Potchefstroom's Research Institute of Reclamation Ecology (rire) has been handed over the task of rehabilitating many of the dumps to stop asbestos pollution. rire has tackled 16 dump sites in Mpumalanga, 92 in Northern Province, and 82 in northern Cape Province. But there are several dumps still lying open to the winds, rains and rivers.
rire conducted research on the prevailing average wind speeds. The results show that people in northwestern Cape Province may be exposed to unsafe levels of airborne asbestos particles 106 km downwind of the dumps. In the Northern Province, strong winds can carry fibre particles to towns as far as 396 km from the dump.
Rivers are also getting polluted. "I cannot think of any dump that is not in the lowest portion of a water course," said Johann Booysen, director of rire . "The miners did not want this waste and they knew that it would wash away," he says. "In the Northern Province, when it rains, a lot of asbestos is washed into the rivers, water from which is used for washing and cooking. Also, the asbestos particles can become airborne and pose an additional health risk," he adds.
Thomas Baloyi is a terrain manager for rire . He started working in 1949 as a driver on Bewaarskloof mine in the Northern Province -- called Lebowa at that time. Ironically, he started off in the heyday of mining and is shutting them down at present. It is a fitting task, as Baloyi has paid a high price for his labour. He is suffering from asbestosis, a disease of the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos particles that ultimately leads to death due to suffocation.
He remembers when Bewaarskloof was home to thousands of miners. "We did not know then that asbestos was poisonous. It was only in the 1970s that the whites started wearing masks and saying we must be careful. A lot of people have died, hundreds and hundreds," he says. And why did the mines finally close? "The whites told us they could no longer sell the asbestos," says Baloyi. "They could not get the money per tonnage to pay the people or run the compressors," Baloyi explains.
As for the cost of the clean-up, the department of mineral and energy affairs awarded rire approximately us $1 million in March to continue its work. The department of environmental affairs and tourism contributed us $76,000. A large dump costs about us $250,000 to rehabilitate.
But extensive dumps such as those in Koegas in northern Cape Province are made up of 16 large dumps, three of them within three metre of the Orange River. Each of these will cost an estimated us $1.25 million to rehabilitate. As most of the mines were owned by transnational corporations, the government has to pay for the entire cost of the clean-up. If the dump is owned by a lease-holder who did not mine the area, then the holder pays five per cent of the costs.