Assessment of the environmental and socio-economic impacts of unrehabilitated tailings storage facilities: a study of Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine liquidation using dispersal and remote sensing model

Mpanza, Mbalenhle
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The mining industry continues to contribute significantly to the South African economy. However, it can negatively affect the environment and the socio-economic status of the surrounding communities. Despite improvements in South African legislation, numerous gaps, contradictions and compliance challenges are experienced in the law. Various pieces of law have been promulgated to mitigate and manage environmental degradation and to hold those who pollute the environment accountable. Recently, with the attempt to uphold the principles of sustainable development in the mining industry, laws have been amended and new laws promulgated to additionally account for the socio-economic development of surrounding communities. This study focused on how the liquidation of a mining company, which resulted in sudden mine closure, exacerbated the impact on the environment and surrounding community. The case study is a gold mine located in the West Witwatersrand Basin in central South Africa; and the liquidation of a company called Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mining Company (BGMC). The mine underwent provisional liquidation in 2013, which led to sudden and premature mine closure. The cessation of operations also meant the end of environmental impact control and management, such as the rehabilitation of surrounding tailings storage facilities (TSFs). The end of rehabilitation resulted in dust pollution owing to wind erosion of the tailings material. A paucity of literature exists discussing quantified socio-economic impacts of suddenly closed mining operations owing to liquidation of a mining company. This study uses a combination of techniques, such as air dispersion modelling (American Meteorological Society/Environmental Protection Agency Regulatory Model, AERMOD), and hyperspectral remote sensing technology, to accurately map and predict the dust exposure and conduct environmental economic valuation to outline and quantify environmental and socio economic impacts faced by mining communities near insolvent mining companies. The impact pathway approach was used to estimate the cost of health impacts on the surrounding community in Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine Village owing to the PM10 inhalation. The AERMOD model approach assisted in spatially assessing the air quality around the mining village to qualify the community’s complaints during the windy season (July-October). No other study has established a quantified relationship between communities’ discontent and the unrehabilitated TSFs after company liquidation and sudden mine closure. The hyperspectral remote sensing approach explored the use of vegetation indices in random forest (RF) regression to predict the dust retention ii and plant health at the village. Lastly, the estimation of externalities of dust generated from TSFs assisted in understanding the potential health endpoints and costs of illness borne by the exposed communities. This step adopted the impact pathway approach of the External Costs of Energy (ExternE) project. The first phase of this study investigated perceptions among the surrounding community regarding mining company liquidation, unrehabilitated TSFs and dust impacts using a household survey. This phase found that TSF6 is perceived by the Blyvooruitzicht gold mine village community to be generating dust that triggers respiratory illness. The community explained that the dust affects their economic status owing to medical costs. The second phase involved assessing the impacts of eight TSFs on the surrounding community at Blyvooruitzicht mine village. A total of 32 source samples were collected from the tailings and analysed for particle size, moisture and chemical content and these served as input parameters in the AERMOD dispersion model.
A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the academic requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geography to the Faculty of Science, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2022