Jagersfontein Developments was ordered to cease its tailings operations in September 2020 by the Free State Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) – but that decision was strangely reversed in May 2021.
The tailings dam collapse at Jagersfontein in the Free State on 11 September this year left one person dead and about 300 homeless.
The dam sits alongside the former diamond mine owned and then shuttered by De Beers in the 1970s. It was used to store mining waste byproducts, but a breach of the dam wall resulted in the nearby valley and residences being overwhelmed with mud and waste.
A 2020 study by SRK Consulting analysed several potential dam breach scenarios, including the likelihood that a breach of the retaining wall would release all 20 million cubic metres of tailings volume stored in the dam.
It was anticipated that a breach would result in tailings material flowing south-east along the natural drainage course, and “could likely impact parts of Jagersfontein as well as the R706 [road]”.
The directive issued to Jagersfontein Developments by the DWS in 2020 notified the mine that it had exceeded the allowable volume of water for disposal into the tailings dam by nearly 70%, and this was in violation of its water use licence.
As part of the mining company’s water use licence conditions, it was required to “cease to utilize the existing tailings and other waste disposal facilities, [and] compile a decommission plan before 2020 for approval by the department”.
It is evident from the DWS correspondence that Jagersfontein Developments resisted the directive, arguing that it would have negative economic impacts on the surrounding area.
The department fired back: “In the rejection of your representations, the department has indicated to you that Jagersfontein Developments’ attempt to burden the department with the responsibility for [imminent] job losses is unfair given that it is the lack of adequate planning and blatant non-compliance with the condition of the [licence] that has placed all parties in a precarious situation.”
Despite ordering the mine to cease disposing of waste into the tailings dam and to stop using water from the site for mineral processing, that decision appears to have been overturned just a few months later, according to environmental class action attorney Richard Spoor.
The DWS directive notified the mine that it could appeal its decision at the Water Tribunal, based in Pretoria.
“But on 31 May 2021 the DWS reversed their decision and allowed the mine to continue using the dump,” says Spoor.
Jagersfontein Developments was required to address dam safety concerns raised in the SRK Consulting report and compile an emergency preparedness plan. The company reportedly submitted evidence to the DWS that the dam was stable.
Director-general in the Free State Office of the Premier, Kopung Ralikontsane, said the provincial government had, two years ago, issued instructions to Jagersfontein to stabilise the walls of the tailings dam or cease operations – which would have averted the disaster.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said the Jagersfontein tragedy evokes memories of the February 1994 Merriespruit tailings dam disaster, also in the Free State, in which 17 people were killed and 80 houses destroyed. On that occasion, excessive rainfall was blamed for the tailings dam failure.
Spoor says he would not be surprised if class action lawsuits follow the Jagersfontein tailings disaster, given the scale of the damage and number of people affected.