Troubled South African tailings dam had history of high water levels

·3-min read

By Nelson Banya

(Reuters) - South African authorities shut down the Jagersfontein diamond tailings dam in 2020 due to high water levels before allowing it to reopen last year, a company official said on Monday, a day after the dam burst, killing at least one person and injuring 40.

Sludge flooded out of the tailings dam on Sunday morning, sweeping away houses and cars in Jagersfontein in the Free State province, 514 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg.

Tailings dams - large embankments built to store mine waste - have caused numerous environmental disasters, most notably in Brazil in January 2019, when 270 people died after Vale SA's Brumadinho tailings dam collapsed.

The Free State provincial government had ordered a halt in operations in 2020, saying then-owner Reinet Investment had exceeded authorised water levels. The government gave the all-clear to resume operations in June 2021 as water levels dropped, according to Jagersfontein Developments, a division of Dubai's Stargems Group, which bought the facility in April 2022.

"We complied with the directive and they gave us a new licence in June of 2021. We've been complying with the water use licence that we have now," Maurice de Villiers, a compliance officer at Jagersfontein, told Reuters.

Jagersfontein is reprocessing the tailings waste in the hopes of finding diamonds that were missed during initial mining, he added.

De Villiers said the cause of the dam collapse was not yet known and experts had been brought in to investigate. Engineers last inspected the dam in July this year, finding that volumes were "within limits" and the dam was safe, Jagersfontein Developments said in a statement.

The company said it had made 20 million rand ($1.17 million) available for relief operations.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation reported that one Jagersfontein resident returned this morning to where her house used to stand before it was swept away yesterday.

"Now it’s a matter of just accepting what has happened and trying to see how we move forward, because at the moment we have nothing," the news channel cited the woman as saying. "Right now we are just back to see whatever we can salvage from the wreck and what help we can get."

'RESTORING LIVELIHOODS'

Addressing people affected by the dam burst in Jagersfontein on Monday evening, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the government would investigate.

"This is an accident. Some of you think it's a man-made accident; we're going to investigate. For now, let us focus on restoring the livelihoods of our people here with immediate effect," Ramaphosa said.

Officials from the mines ministry and the Free State provincial government did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the disaster, which has raised questions about oversight of mining operations in the country.

South Africa has the largest number of so-called "upstream" tailings dams that are built using a method considered unsafe by many engineers, a 2019 Reuters report https://graphics.reuters.com/MINING-TAILINGS1/0100B4S72K1/index.html found. In Brazil, Vale is spending billions of dollars on closing its upstream dams and reducing the overall volume of mine waste.

Reuters could not immediately confirm whether Jagersfontein was an upstream tailings dam.

De Beers, the diamond mining unit of Anglo American Plc, operated the Jagersfontein mine between 1870 and 1971, before selling it to Superkolong Consortium in 2010. Although mining stopped decades ago, advances in extraction technology have made it possible for gems to be recovered from the old mine waste.

Luxembourg-based investment firm Reinet sold Jagersfontein in 2022 to Stargems, whose specialty is in rough diamond trading, polishing and jewellery, according to its latest annual report. Reinet did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Nelson Banya; Editing by Helen Reid and Aurora Ellis)