Jagersfontein: How mine dams collapse

Early on Sunday morning, a slimes dam in Jagersfontein in the Free State burst its walls, leaving one person dead and four missing. According to the presidency, 23 other residents were being treated for hypothermia, and another four for broken legs. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to visit the area on Monday, according to his office. Search and rescue efforts are ongoing.  

The collapse of the slimes dam –  a dam with an embankment that stores by-products from mining – swept away homes and cars and flooded the town in a toxic deluge of mine waste and mud.

The disaster unfolded at about 6am in the diamond mining town, which is situated in the Kopanong local municipality. Some residents reported that the “mud is deeper in some places than a person is tall”.

In June, the Mail & Guardian reported that the rate of such collapses were becoming more frequent. But why do accidents like these happen? We asked Mariette Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, to break it down.

High risks

Liefferink spoke about the risks of failures of tailings storage facilities (TSFs) previously where she warned such failures are becoming more frequent. 

“Our TSFs in South Africa are at the highest risk of failure because they are all upstream,” she said. 

Tailings usually takes the form of a liquid slurry made of fine metal or mineral particles and water. They are created when mined ore is crushed and finely grounded in a milling process to enable the metals and minerals of interest to be extracted.

TSFs are engineered structures that are designed to contain tailings and to manage associated water. The storage facilities are built to contain mining residue and are among the largest dams and structures in the world, and “will stand in perpetuity”.

The tailings are pumped as a slurry to the storage facility, and they settle to form the TSF. “A catastrophic release of a large amount of tailings could lead to long term environmental damage with huge cleanup costs,” she said. 

“To manage mining facilities responsibly, the TSF owner must understand the physical and chemical risks associated with the storage and implement controls to reduce risks relating to potential health, safety, environmental, societal, business, and economic impacts in line with regulations.”

Liefferink said that if poorly designed, constructed or managed, TSFs represent a significant risk to local communities and ecosystems, especially in downstream environments.

The damage done

Thirty-five people were transported to the Diamant Hospital in Jagersfontein, including a pregnant woman, with four patients sustaining fractured limbs and the remainder of the suffering bruises and hypothermia, according to Palesa Chubisi, spokesperson for Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela. Five more patients were transported to Albert Nzula hospital in Trompsburg. 

Ntombela activated the provincial disaster management services while the department of social development evacuated people in affected areas to nearby farms. 

“The premier was just at the hospital,” said Chubisi. “She’s happy with what she has witnessed. There are no patients in intensive care or any other major injuries of the 35 she was able to see.

“We don’t have the exact number of the houses that have been swept away, we are still waiting for a preliminary report from those that are on the ground,” she said. Chubisi added that a preliminary report from the provincial education department indicated that no educational facilities had been affected.

Reuters reported that Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe told reporters that nine houses were swept away while 20 were completely damaged by flooding from the tailings dam. “Compensation for fatalities, compensation in terms of damage to property will be taken as a responsibility of the company that owns the slimes dam,” Mantashe said.

Who owns the mine?

Chubisi did not want to divulge details of the mine’s ownership. “What the premier decided is that our primary focus is to save lives and restore dignity to the people of Jagersfontein,” she said.

Mantashe is expected to visit the area on Tuesday. “Obviously tomorrow and Tuesday there will be meetings with the mine but for now, our interest is just to look into how do we help as provincial government because people are displaced, it’s concerning,” she said. “The mines will have to take responsibility at some point in time but for now ours is to make sure before sunset people will know where they will be accommodated and the like.”

Eskom said in a statement that it had lost bulk electricity supply in the area. “Due to the tragic events that unfolded in the Free State this morning, Eskom has lost bulk supply to Centlec, the electricity distributor responsible for Jagersonftein town and township … Due to the current situation in the Jagersfontein area and inaccessibility of our substation, it is impossible to estimate when supply will be restored or to determine the extent of the damage.”

Chubisi said the Free State MEC for Health Montseng Margaret Tsiu had arranged for a generator to be sent to Diamant Hospital as there is no electricity in the area. 

Humanitarian organisations Meals on Wheels and the South African Red Cross were on the ground, while Gift of the Givers would make its way to the area tomorrow.

Multiple questions

Estelle Noordman, DA councillor for the Kopanong local municipality, said the disaster raised multiple questions. “Why are there houses in the path of the water flow? What caused the slime dam to break? What additional problems will be caused by harmful materials in the slime water?” she said, adding that  the DA will “ensure that these questions and more will be answered by the provincial government”. 

In a statement, the Minerals Council South Africa said it was “saddened” by the tragedy unfolding at Jagersfontein after the collapse of a historic deposition dam and it recommits its members to the highest standards of tailings and waste rock dump management. 

“The causes of the collapse of the dam at the Jagersfontein diamond mine, which was shut in the 1970s, are unknown at this stage. The loss of life and injuries sustained in the deluge from the collapsed dam as well as the damage to homes and infrastructure is a tragedy,” it said, adding that it and its members had offered assistance to the government.

The Jagersfontein assets are not currently owned by any of its members, it said, and it has no information about the ownership structure or the standard of management of the dumps available at this stage.

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