The grime wall holding in mucky waste from diamond mining grew through the years to resemble a large, towering plateau. Suspended like a frozen tsunami over neat tracts of Monopoly-like properties within the rural South African mining city of Jagersfontein, the dam alarmed residents who feared it would collapse.
“We saw it long time, that one day this thing will burst,” mentioned Memane Paulus, a machine operator on the dam for the previous decade.
The worst fears of residents got here true this month when a piece of the dam crumbled, sending a thunderous rush of grey sludge by the group that killed at the least one particular person, destroyed 164 homes, and turned a six-mile stretch of neighborhoods and grassy fields into an ashen wasteland.
Thec has induced alarm in a nation the place heaping dams of mining waste, referred to as tailings, are a part of the panorama. Specialists estimate that South Africa has a whole lot of tailings dams, which mining watchdogs say is the legacy of an exploitative business that extracts profitable gems for jewellery shops overseas, whereas poor communities are saddled with poisonous waste at residence.
The townspeople in Jagersfontein, residence to one of many world’s oldest diamond mines, had watched the wall of waste mount, looming over their properties and streets. However there was little they may do to cease it as a result of it was huge enterprise.
A consortium that purchased the mining waste from the mine’s former proprietor, De Beers, was sifting by the tailings to extract any diamonds left behind — an more and more standard offshoot of mining. In doing so, the operation was piling up much more waste, and authorities oversight was lax. Some mine staff had been scared when their colleagues reported discovering leaks within the dam.
“It was definitely avoidable,” mentioned Mariette Liefferink, chief government of the Federation for a Sustainable Setting, an environmental group centered on mining. “The damage to the ecosystem, to human lives, to future generations — the risks are significant.”
The worldwide mining business had promised to do higher after an analogous dam collapse in Brazil three years in the past killed greater than 250 individuals. Among the main mine operators collaborated to develop requirements for tailings dams. However many smaller operators, just like the one in Jagersfontein, don’t comply with the requirements and lack the sources and experience to handle tailings dams, Liefferink mentioned.
Marius de Villiers, the authorized compliance officer for the mine’s working firm, Jagersfontein Growth, mentioned it complied with all necessities set by South African regulators. The dam was frequently inspected, he mentioned, and an engineering report from July declared it was structurally sound.
“We were not even contemplating that something like this would happen,” de Villiers mentioned. He mentioned that whereas the corporate was nonetheless investigating the dam break, it “must accept liability that comes with the operations and with the break.”
‘That Thing Is Going to Blast’
About 2 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11, a truck driver on the dam noticed a crack within the facade, a number of staff there that day mentioned in interviews. The motive force reported it to a foreman, who checked it out however didn’t do something, the employees mentioned.
Joe Makalajane, a pan operator on the mine, didn’t see the crack himself however spoke to the motive force as they had been ending their shift, he mentioned.
“He said, ‘I’ll tell you, that thing is going to blast,’” mentioned Makalajane, 45, recalling his dialog. Of administration, he added, “They didn’t take it seriously.”
De Villiers and Johan Combrink, the plant supervisor, denied that there was any report of a crack early that morning.
The dam wall collapsed between 6 and seven a.m. Some residents are livid on the prospect that they may have been alerted earlier.
Rio-Rita Breytenbach, whose house is close to the dam, stood on a chair within the kitchen because the barrage of slime barreled towards her. She was swept off the chair and out of the home. Caught within the raging present, Breytenbach, 39, mentioned she floated on her again and paddled within the muck to maintain her head above water.
“I was praying that I would survive,” she mentioned.
She lastly got here to relaxation on a farm, the place the police discovered her — greater than 6 miles from her home.
The sludge worn out a lot of two residential neighborhoods to the south and the east. Fields, stretching for miles, seemed like frozen cement lakes, some dotted with mangled automobiles and sunken utility poles.
Jack Sephaka was visiting his mom throughout city when the dam broke. He stared from a distance in horror — his three-bedroom home was being washed away with, so far as he knew, his spouse and one in all his sons inside.
“I thought they were dead,” he mentioned.
To his reduction, his spouse ultimately referred to as his mom to say that they had made it to a shelter.
He has to rebuild a house that he purchased 20 years in the past for 40,000 rand ($2,300), now lacking its total entrance facade.
Sephaka had labored on the mine shortly after it reopened in 2010, however stop after 4 years as a result of circumstances had been unhealthy, he mentioned.
“I was not happy,” he mentioned, with “the stress of the mine.”
However the mine’s issues nonetheless caught as much as him.
A Colonial Previous
With its first diamonds extracted in 1870 by colonial settlers, the Jagersfontein mine is a relic of a diamond rush that always exploited Black South Africans whereas enriching white homeowners. It yielded a 650-carat diamond, among the many world’s largest, that was acquired by British retailers and from which was minimize the jubilee diamond, named in honor of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
De Beers, the worldwide mining titan, operated the mine from 1932 to 1971. It then sat idle, however within the early 2000s, De Beers sought to capitalize on bettering know-how to extract minerals from tailings. It sued for the precise to mine tailings with no mining license and gained a judgment in 2007.
De Beers then offered the tailings at Jagersfontein in 2010 to a consortium that ultimately got here beneath the management of Johann Rupert, a South African billionaire whose corporations personal luxurious manufacturers like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. In April, simply six months earlier than the collapse, Rupert’s holding firm, Reinet Investments SCA, offered all of its shares in Jagersfontein Growth to Stargems, a Dubai-based diamond producer and retailer, in line with a Stargems announcement.
Reinet didn’t reply to requests for remark.
The businesses could possibly be prosecuted for violating South Africa’s environmental and water legal guidelines, or could possibly be compelled to pay compensation, mentioned Tracy-Lynn Subject, a legislation professor on the College of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who makes a speciality of environmental and mining legislation. Authorities officers can also should reply, she mentioned.
The ruling in 2007 in De Beers’ lawsuit eliminated duty for tailings dams from the federal government’s minerals division. As an alternative, as a result of tailings are processed in dams, the Division of Water and Sanitation was left to supervise them, regardless of restricted experience in mining, Subject mentioned.
Residents mentioned they had been excited when the mine roared again to life in 2010, believing it will create jobs.
However quickly they had been coughing from all of the mud within the air, and watching with angst because the dam’s grime facade practically doubled in peak.
“We kept saying, ‘What if something happens here? What if it breaks?’” mentioned Itumeleng Monageng, 28, who sadly came upon the reply: This month he was knee-high in muck, salvaging no matter he may from his residence.
Fears heightened in recent times when residents mentioned they periodically noticed water seeping by the dam wall. The mayor of Jagersfontein, Xolani Tseletsele, mentioned group members aired their issues with officers from the water division.
However Combrink, the plant supervisor, denied that the dam ever had a leakage downside, or that staff had reported holes within the facade. He attributed any moisture to stormwater runoff.
In keeping with a replica of a water division directive, inspectors visited the dam, and in January 2021, ordered the operation to cease, citing a number of violations. Chief amongst them was that the ability disposed greater than 2 1/2 as a lot waste within the dam because it was allowed to in 2020 — and had continued disposing waste even after division officers advised it to cease.
5 months later, the division cleared the ability to reopen, noting in a memorandum that Jagersfontein Growth had agreed to be inspected extra carefully and put in new tools to scale back the wastewater disposed within the dam. Though the water division mentioned in its memo that Jagersfontein Growth nonetheless wanted to deal with problems with dam security raised in an unbiased engineering report, it gave no directive or deadline for the corporate to take action.
Richard Spoor, an legal professional with many years of expertise litigating mining instances, mentioned it was extraordinary that water division officers, “having found that that high-level report showed a serious risk,” allowed it to reopen.
Sputnik Ratau, a spokesman for the water division, mentioned that the dam had been allowed to reopen whereas issues of safety had been being addressed as a result of dam officers had already glad different circumstances.
In 2018, Jagersfontein Growth constructed a brand new part of the dam that may enhance its capability by 30% and enhance profitability, in line with a 2019 annual report filed by Reinet Investments.
Even with that growth, the dam was nonetheless having capability points — it has utilized for a allow to dump waste within the authentic mining pit, which is a nationwide heritage web site.
An evaluation of satellite tv for pc pictures performed after the collapse by a knowledge and analytics firm exhibits that from Aug. 1 to 13, the nook of the dam that broke had grow to be barely deformed, indicating weak spot, mentioned Dave Petley, a geologist on the College of Hull in England. The brand new part is the one which collapsed, he mentioned.
Mining corporations and regulators with correct experience ought to have caught these warning indicators, he mentioned.
For Sephaka, the previous mine employee whose home was ruined, this was the most recent bitter chapter within the lengthy lifetime of a mine that he felt had introduced little profit to the group.
“It’s painful,” he mentioned, surveying the wreckage.
Written by John Eligon and Lynsey Chutel