Stilfontein's rotten patch turns green

2012-01-29 15:12

Johannesburg – A gold producer almost the size of the former Ergo, which has cleaned up Anglo American’s East Rand mine dumps, will arise on the West Rand from the partnership announced by Gold Fields [JSE:GFI] and Gold One International [JSE:GDO].

It will take at least a year for its plan to take shape as a gold company – one with an anticipated reserve of some 8m ounces.

Stilfontein, probably the most polluted mining town in the country, recently also had a taste of the impact of this type of cleanup industry when Mine Waste Solutions (MWS) finished planting indigenous trees and grass on 160ha along the N12 freeway outside the town.

Over the past two months this stretch of land, the site of the former infamous Buffelsfontein Mine No 2 tailings dam, was planted with trees such as Karee, Acacia, White Stinkwood, White Karee, Taaibos en River Bush-Willow.

MWS followed a laborious process to reach this point. The old tailings dam lay on dolomite, which made the removal of the old tailings difficult and expensive, said Melt Marais, environmental manager at MWS.

A wide-ranging rehabilitation plan was then developed over 18 months. Samples of the topsoil were analysed to determine the concentration of heavy metals, acid and other substances.

This is the first of 15 slimes dams around Stilfontein that MWS intends cleaning up. Another two alongside the freeway will be cleared away this year, so that 330ha can be planted in 2013.

The Gold Fields Gold One partnership will eventually clear up 60% of all the old mine dumps on the West Rand. Once the gold, uranium and sulphate residue has been extracted, they will be dumped in a modern mega tailings facility to the south of the South Deep shaft, near Glenharvie.

But impact and feasibility studies for the project will first be undertaken this year.

Building of the infrastructure can start next year at the earliest. This is a process that needs to be tackled with circumspection and fine planning.

“Our tailings dams are around residential areas in Randfontein. That's the first problem. Secondly, uranium and sulphates (metals that have combined with other materials) which have never been extracted are present in these dams create levels of radiation which need attention,” said Gold One chief executive Neal Froneman.

Gold Fields’ gold resource in tailings dams is expected to be around 4m ounces. Through the acquisition of Rand Uranium, a company established by Harmony Gold Mining Company [JSE:HAR] seven years ago to process the old Randfontein Estates mine dumps, Gold One will obtain most of its mineral assets from tailings dams. (Harmony excluded only the Doornkop dams from the deal.)

The Cooke uranium dam, which contains an estimated 89m pounds of uranium, is one of the most significant assets that Gold One acquired. The Cooke uranium project is however under review so that the mineral resources can be accurately assessed, and especially for an engineering study on the establishment of a metallurgical plant for extracting uranium.

The combination of studies so far done by Gold One, Rand Uranium and Gold Fields, and the possibility that the existing metallurgical infrastructure can be shared, makes it possible to determine the economic viability of the project much sooner than was previously the case.

Gold Fields has already started its mega tailings dam south of South Deep. Gold One Rand Uranium will probably use the same terrain, which means that all the tailings dams will eventually be combined there, in one place, under the auspices of the three companies and protected by modern techniques and construction methods.

This will make it possible to hold to acceptable levels future pollution by dust and radiation hazards, says Froneman.

“Many of the Gold One and Rand Uranium dams were built in the 1920s and those of Gold Fields in the 1930s and 1940s. They are very old tailings dams and standards were not like those of today. The mega dam will have acceptable levels of sulphates and other elements,” Froneman says.

According to Gold Fields’ calculations over the past two years, its tailings dams will be able to produce a resource of about 4.5m ounces of gold, and 53.6m pounds of uranium.

The impact and feasibility studies will determine eventual rates of production, but provisional estimates are that about 100 000 ounces of gold and two million pounds of uranium will be extracted per year.

 - Sake24

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