BCL poisoned workers – experts

SHARE   |   Monday, 24 October 2016   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane
BCL poisoned workers – experts

BCL Liquidator Nigel Dixon-Warren will be confronted with shocking findings when he finally conducts health inspections on the 5000 dismissed workers, after Government and other shareholders disregarded warning of disastrous pollution from public health experts, caused by the sulphur dioxide and effluent pumped into the open environment. The closure of BCL mine - estimated to cripple the economy of Selebi Phikwe town and the whole of SPEDU region – comes as good news for tree-hugging environmentalists who have consistently complained about widespread pollution and health hazards in the area. Research on BCL pollution Scientific research by different scholars draws a scary picture of the dangers posed by the pollution from BCL mine on people, vegetation, livestock and other forms of wildlife in the vicinity of the mine. Research has shown that the BCL smelter emits 534,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and a further 5,500 tonnes of silica and nickel dust annually. BCL also pumps out 330,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere directly and indirectly per annum.

BCL mine – whose operations gobble 16 million litres of water monthly supplied by Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) – only recycles a percentage of the wastewater, and releases excess effluent into channels connecting Mathathane and Motloutse rivers. Downstream, this contaminated water from the two rivers is used by local communities to water livestock and for other domestic uses, compromising the health of the animals and people. BCL has been pumping millions of litres of water into the open environment over the years, alongside an estimated four million cubic metres of tailings per year. Tailings – which form black mountains at BCL mine – is refuse that remains after copper-nickel ore is processed.  According to minister responsible for environment Tshekedi Khama – in response to a question in Parliament last year – government is aware of this pollution but chose to "continue to monitor the situation for the best environmental management practice". Khama said his ministry is constantly engaging BCL to desist from the practice of overflowing wastewater into the open environment due to the possibility of cumulative pollution and the risk to public health. Khama is aware of scientific evidence showing that sulphur dioxide – the primary chemical in the emitted smog – has an effect on the public health and the environment over a long period of exposure. The suphur dioxide is a health hazard for people with respiratory problems and can also irritate the lungs. The research was sponsored by European Union (EU) under the Economic Diversification of the Mining Sector (EDMS) Programme.

Health status of S/Phikwe

In 2011 another research by Ekosse G from Directorate of Research Development – Walter Sisulu University Eastern Cape, South Africa – on the topic "Health status within the precincts of a nickel-copper mining and smelting environment" was published in the journal African Health Sciences. The study focused on elucidating on the health status of residents within the precincts of the mine and the smelting plant in Selebi-Phikwe. Findings of the study revealed that health hazards increased with closeness to the mine and the smelter plant. Ekosse concluded that in order to reduce the health hazards due to mining activities at Selebi- Phikwe, the residents should avoid staying outdoors as much as possible where the risk of exposure to contaminated air is quite high; and for those who are frail in health, they should consider relocation to other township areas away from the sulphur-rich gases and fumes. Ekosse recommended that residents should have regular check-ups of their health status, and that Government and related agencies, and the Mine Authorities should work as a team in monitoring pollution activities at Selebi Phikwe. "In collaboration with Health Service Providers, active Health Education Programs which focus on sanitation, and health and wellness of the inhabitants of the study area should be regularly conducted. Such radical move will aid in abating the frequency of occurrences of the sicknesses and diseases in the study area. Expansion of Selebi Phikwe should be regulated in such a way that the growing population is least exposed to the sulphur-rich gases and fumes," reads part of the paper.

Poisoning Selebi Phikwe

Exploitation of copper-nickel ore bodies in Selebi Phikwe has been active for over 40 years. Underground mines provide copper-nickel ore which is fed into the smelter for its processing to matte. In his research Ekosse found that due to financial and technical constraints, inhabitants displaced as a result of the copper-nickel exploitation were not compensated. This resulted in the simultaneous growth of mining facilities as well as townships. The local population traded in livestock and dairy products, traditional alcoholic beverages, and Belina imbrassia (phane worms); and 5000 workers were engaged in mining activities, he said. Consequently, squatter camps sprang up as well as urban settings. Large scale and small scale industries, commercial businesses and agricultural farms developed in the area. Women and children continued to be gainfully engaged in harvesting and selling of Belina imbrassia caterpillar which is widely eaten in southern Africa.

Through a separate study, it was demonstrated that mining and smelting activities at Selebi-Phikwe were having a direct influence on the biophysical environment, contaminating the soils, Colophospermum mopane, Belina imbrassia and the atmosphere. "Atmospheric pollution due to release of particulate air matter (PAM) and sulphur-rich gases was eminent at Selebi-Phikwe. It was hence suspected that the inhabitants of the area probably inhale polluted air. Its residents generally complain of frequent coughing, influenza/common colds, constant headaches, chest pains, cardio-pulmonary complications, tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, general body weaknesses and poor sex performances. A study conducted by Urashima et al. and Kunst et al. confirmed that increase in wind speed and decrease in temperature could result in increase in the number of influenza infections; a meteorological condition that could be applicable to the Selebi-Phikwe scenario. Prevailing winds blowing through the Ni-Cu concentration/smelter plant in the north-easterly direction means SO2 pollution directly affected certain areas of the town including the industrial site. With such level of emission, there was the potential to increase the incidence of respiratory problems which included breathing, respiratory illness, alterations in pulmonary defences," concluded Ekosse.

Sulphur and Heavy Metals
Another researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Botswana, Moagi Letshwenyo, found that soil and Grewia bicolor (moretlwa) leaves around BCL are contaminated with heavy metals on the downwind side, where also concentrations of sulphur were found to be elevated when compared to the upwind side. Letshwenyo's research-published in the Journal of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology (July 2016) was on the topic "Sulphur and heavy metals contents in soils and Grewia bicolor leaves around the Selibe Phikwe Cu-Ni mine (BCL), Botswana".  The study investigated environmental pollution due to mining activities at the BCL mine in Selebi-Phikwe town, Botswana and assessed the level of heavy metals and sulphur in soil and Grewia bicolor leaves adjacent to the mine. "With further distance from the mine concentration in soil and leaves appeared to reflect a decreasing deposition of heavy metals and sulphur. Elevated concentration of heavy metals in leaves represent a high risk of bioaccumulation and biomagnifications in the food chain because G. bicolor leaves are grazed on by farmed animals and are common ingredients of traditional medicines," observed Letshwenyo.

Notwithstanding the considerable economic benefits of mining, mines have the potential to leave a long lasting legacy for the environment as evidenced by case studies in Sudbury, Canada and Kola Peninsula in Russia, studies by Whitby et al., 1976; and Poikolainen, 1997 show. The presence of heavy metals in soils may pose risk and hazards to humans and the ecosystem through: direct ingestion or contact with contaminated soil, the food chain, drinking of contaminated water (Candeias et al., 2011), reduction in food quality via phytotoxicity, reduction in land usability for agricultural production causing food insecurity and land tenure problems (Wuana and Okieimen, 2011). Letshwenyo notes that a significant risk to the environment comes from the disposal of mining waste during the extraction of metals such as copper-nickel. If the mine waste is not properly disposed, it can contribute immensely to heavy metal pollution in the surrounding environment, which can result in the destruction of ecological landscape, ground water pollution and decrease in biological diversity, he said, quoting Sheoran et al., 2011; Rashed, 2010; and Kiikkila, 2003. The threat that heavy metals – which tend to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in animal tissues – pose to humans and animal health is aggravated by their long term persistence in the environment.

Since domestic animals such as cattle and goats do graze in the surrounding area of the BCL mine, they are likely to ingest soil and plants material contaminated with heavy metals which in turn can pose a risk to people consuming animal meat. The research study showed that significant amount of heavy metal and sulphur has been deposited in the western side of the mine (downwind) on both soil and G. bicolor leaves. The soil and plants samples from the western side of the mine had high concentration of copper, nickel and lead. The statistical test further show that the western side of the mine is significantly more polluted than the eastern side. "Persistence of heavy metals in Grewia bicolor and soil continues to be a threat to animals and people of Selebi-Phikwe and the surrounding areas due to potential biomagnifications and bioaccumulation, especially with regard to Lead and Cadmium. More research needs to be done on heavy metals in edible and medicinal plants and also in animals grazing in the mining area," said Letshwenyo.

Polaris II solution
BCL management had proposed, under POLARIS II, to recycle wastewater from the mine for irrigation projects at the horticultural farm. Some of the wastewater was to be used for landscape developments at the golf course and softball pitch. The sulphur dioxide was to be harvested and processed into valuable end products. To this end, a pre-feasibility study to test the viability of producing a range of chemical products including fertilisers, stock feed and detergent soap had already been completed in partnership with Konsultanz – a Dubai based company. The feasibility study was advanced to bankable stage with sourcing of raw materials a key priority – scheduled for December 2015 – when major challenges afflicted the BCL mine.

Things fall apart
Government has since closed BCL, throwing the Polaris II strategy and numerous other initiatives to save Selebi-Phikwe into disarray. The fall of BCL has also arrested plans to enhance already ongoing developments, such as Selebi-Phikwe’s transformation as a metallurgical hub, announced by President Ian Khama in the 2015 State of The Nation address. Such transformation was part of efforts to stimulate the economy by giving additional impetus through the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as geographically defined economic areas providing investor friendly business environments. A Special Economic Zone Authority has since been established. "The Authority will oversee the SEZs, which in turn will facilitate private sector growth through the creation of value added economic opportunities generated by local business synergies. To further stimulate job creation Government has adopted an accelerated programme for job creation focused on key areas that have a high potential for labour intensive economic growth," said Khama. Industries expected to evolve in these areas include Light Manufacturing, Applied ICT, Energy and mineral beneficiation, Pharmaceuticals, Financial services and Agro business and food processing. The liquidator said this week in a letter to BCL employees that they will have to undergo a health scan as part of wounding up operations. Based on the researchers’ warning it is highly likely that the results will not be comforting.