Gold Tailings & The Environment

Owing to its gold mining heritage, Johannesburg is the most radioactive city on the planet, says nonprofit organisation Earthlife Africa. Uranium was considered “merely a waste product” in the late 1800s and was haphazardly discarded without any thought of recovery. Abandoned mines were not properly decommissioned and, as a result, the uranium concentration in tailings disposal plants in the city is now relatively high.

These issues are exacerbated during more windy periods in August and September, which often results in residents complaining about the effects of the harmful dust particles that make their families sick.

“This highlights the importance of sustainable development. The mining of uranium also has a negative environmental impact. Environmental degradation such as soil pollution and decreased ecosystem viability are issues. The most fundamental condition for the effective fulfilment of sustainable development is sustainable consumption,” says Africa-focused gold producer Pan African Resources CEO Cobus Loots.

COBUS LOOTS Environmental degradation such as soil pollution and decreased ecosystem viability are issues

He notes that, throughout history, humanity has witnessed and lived through “great ecocides” on a global scale, mainly through loss of biodiversity. “The importance of sustainable development lies in all economic growth promoting the wellbeing of its civil society, including its vested interest in protecting the environment.”

Loots comments that the private sector may be better able to adapt to sustainable development goals, stating that while sustainability may be easier to implement in developed countries, as compared to developing nations, it should nevertheless be a priority.

Many gold mines have made great strides to reduce their ecological footprint and make sure that, in the twenty-first century, gold mining is known for its sustainability and not for biodiversity loss or sweeping environmental destruction.

“Gold tailings are materials remaining after extracting the desirable fraction from the uneconomic fraction (gangue) of the ore. Tailings vary, from overburden, which is the waste rock, to other material that encases an ore or mineral body, and which is displaced without processing during mining,” explains Loots.

The United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 17 related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) balance the three aspects of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – making them actionable for corporate leaders.

The gold mining industry relies solely on the environment and natural resources. Pan African stands firm in reducing and, where possible, removing the harmful environmental effects of its operations, including climate change. The group’s dedication to its sustainable development strategy is apparent in its focus on safely extracting gold from mineral resources in a way that produces economic value to its stakeholders. This dedication assists and contextualises the UN’s SDGs.

Pan African takes special care to ensure that its fully financed mining activities restore the ecosystem to as similar to natural state as possible. Re-mining and consolidating gold tailings helps reduce its environmental footprint. Tailings retreatment is the group’s biggest recycling contribution.

“By reprocessing waste rock and tailings to remove gold left behind after the initial mining process we reduce environmental impact while maintaining tailings dams. Tailings dam management is further supervised by a designated, qualified individual on each of the tailing storage facility (TSF) sites to ensure compliance with regulations and overall sustainability.”

The expanded Kinross TSF extension of Elikhulu is planned to avoid and reduce underground filling and contamination and reflects the group’s commitment to fixing the ‘scar tissue’ of tailings most frequently associated with mining.

Pan African’s Elikhulu mine combines the Kinross, Leslie and Winkelhaak TSFs into a single facility to reduce Evander Mines’ environmental footprint and impact. The Barberton Tailings Retreatment Plant also fulfils the same role and consolidates the Bramber and Harper TSFs by re-mining and re-depositing tailings waste. Pan African is one of the few mines in South Africa to have comprehensive tailings retreatment operations that are both sustainable and profitable.

“As South African environmental, social and corporate governance factors become more robust and sustainability-oriented, it is a great opportunity for South Africa to reconsider its environmental governance structures and conserve biodiversity for future generations.

“South Africa has plenty of wind and sun to create and grow an enormous renewable energy market that is decentralised and more capable of meeting people’s energy needs. The country can have a hybrid energy model that moves beyond nuclear and fossil fuels,” concludes Loots.