Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Bulembu State of Mine

The old Havelock Mine tailings just outside of Bulembu.

Hold up, it’s time for a fifty-five second history lesson.

Between 1939 and 2001, Bulembu operated as a chrysotile mine. Originally named Havelock Mine, the mine was part of the Turner & Newall Asbestos Group. The mine encountered heavy losses in the late 1980's and subsequently went bankrupt in 1991. The company was liquidated and the assets purchased in 1991 by HVL Asbestos Swd. Ltd. who changed the name of the mine to Bulembu Mine. HVL Asbestos ran the mine until it went into liquidation in 2001.

Got it?

Okay, fast-forward to the present.

The view of the old mine tailings serves as a backdrop for the town.

The mine has remained inactive since 2001 but the large grey mass of mine tailings at the south-west end of town serve as an eyesore, an unusable plot of land and a constant reminder of what used to be.

To address these issues, Bulembu asked two Canadian-based environmental remediation specialists, Ron and Brian from Vancouver-based Quantum Murray LP, to come survey the mine tailings in order to determine the best course of action to reclaim the dumpsite.

“The tailings are basically the waste product left behind after the asbestos was extracted from the mine,” explains one of the specialists, Brian. “For aesthetic reasons, health concerns and to be able to actually use the land our plan is to reshape and re-vegetate the tailing pile.”

When it comes to the ‘a-word’ (asbestos) it is expected that everyone wants to know what health risks the old mine poses. There has been no conclusive evidence to point to the fact that the tailings pose a serious, or even moderate health risk to townspeople. However, Brian and Ron make it clear that rehabilitating the mine by capping the tailings with soil in order to mitigate any perceived risks.

“We have taken baseline air samples and will take them back to Canada to be tested,” Brian explains, “and hopefully in the next little while we will send an industrial hygienist to come assess the risk, but for us it is not the primary concern. The most important reason to rehabilitate the mine tailings is to free-up another 50 hectares of land to facilitate community enterprises.”

After the tailings have been reshaped, capped with a meter of soil and replanted with thick, matted vegetation, one possibility that has been discussed is that the area would be used as grazing land for Bulembu Dairy’s cattle.

While more assessments are needed and more research must be done, the plan is to begin the physical rehabilitation of the tailings in November 2010. This target date was chosen because it is during the rainy season. This is ideal because the ground will be damp and the amount of airborne particles will therefore be kept to a minimum.

It is expected that the first phase of the rehabilitation (the part you can see from in town – phase two is the steep slope on the western edge of the tailings) would take eight months to a year and would create jobs for approximately twenty people. Quantum would provide experts to train local operators to use the machinery and would ensure a site-specific health and safety plan is put in place.

“The idea is that we would take what is basically a moonscape and change it into an aesthetically pleasing and physically useful area,” says Brian. “Rehabilitating the mine tailings is all part of restoring the town and looking towards the future.”
A view of the tailing's western slope. This slope is phase two of the rehabilitation process.

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