Jagersfontein, an Avoidable CatastropheSeptember 29, 22
Last Saturday Ralehana Aaron Mosoeu, 78, was laid to rest. He died when a tailings dam burst at Jagersfontein, South Africa, dumping 20 million cubic meters of thick, gray sludge - waste from a disused diamond mine - onto hundreds of nearby homes. Two other people - Mantele Mokhali, 50, and Shadrack Williams, 70 - have been missing, presumed dead since 11 September, the day it happened. Few people know their names beyond their families and neighbors in the small Free State town that has been devastated by the disaster.
What happened at Jagersfontein was an avoidable catastrophe. The dam, built close to a De Beers diamond mine that closed in the 1970s, held a mountain of tailings - the slurry that is left over after the ore that contains diamonds has been crushed. De Beers sold the tailings at Jagersfontein in 2010 to Luxembourg-based Reinet Investments S.C.A. to sift them for diamond remnants. That process piled up more waste, putting more pressure on the dam wall. Reinet sold the tailings to Dubai-based Stargems earlier this year.
In the early hours of Sunday, two weeks ago, the dam gave way, spewing the waste onto the people of Jagersfontein. The sludge travelled for miles, demolishing houses, polluting rivers, killing livestock, destroying roads, sweeping away bridges, knocking out the power supply, devastating farmland, causing an ecological disaster. Residents are still being warned to wear masks and closed shoes, and not to touch the sludge.
A 2020 study by international mining consultants SRK analyzed several potential dam breach scenarios. Residents had reported water seeping through the dam wall, a sign that it could eventually give way, and were convinced it was a disaster waiting to happen. The Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said after the disaster that it was "definitely avoidable". Inspectors had ordered a halt to work at the dam in January 2020, warning that it was holding more than twice the permitted volume of waste. Five months later it was allowed to re-open.
There have been widespread allegations of bribery, negligence, and incompetence. There will, no doubt, be an investigation. And that investigation will, no doubt, be tainted by the same allegations of bribery, negligence, and incompetence. Life will carry on as before, the names of Ralehana Aaron Mosoeu, Mantele Mokhali, and Shadrack Williams, will remain unknown, and the Jagersfontein tragedy will be consigned as an insignificant footnote in the history of the diamond industry.
It's barely a year since another tragedy, widely reported as the result of diamond tailings. Twelve people died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and at least 4,400 were taken ill last July. Satellite images identified the source as the Catoca mine, upstream in Angola. Mine operators Sociedade Mineira de Catoca (Catoca Mining Company), insists the water that leaked into tributaries of the River Congo contained no heavy metals. Residents say the water turned red, killing thousands of fish, as well as two hippopotamuses, and causing an "environmental disaster".
Hans Merket, of the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), a Belgium-based independent research institute, has been looking into the tragedy. He said: "While many facts surrounding the incident to date remain unclear, what has come to light is a glaring lack of leadership on the part of those politically in charge in Congo and Angola to ensure accountability and remedy for the harms caused." In a briefing document published earlier this month he said: "A year after the news reached the world press, hardly anything has been heard about the environmental disaster allegedly caused by the Angolan Catoca diamond mine."
There is no comprehensive database of the world's tailings dams, but there are an estimated 3,500 globally, across all mining sectors that are active, and many, many more, that are the legacy of industry that has taken what's available and moved on. The catalogue of failings is long. Among them is Merriespruit, 160 miles from Jagersfontein. The dam there breached in February 1994, killing 17 people and destroying 80 houses. In 1966 more than 480 people died in a dam collapse at a copper mine in Bulgaria. In 1985, a dam collapse in Italy killed 268 people. In 2008, a tailings landslide in China killed 254 people. Have any lessons been learned from these, or from Merriespruit? Will any lessons be learned from Jagersfontein?
Have a fabulous weekend.