AMD, HRE and other acronyms

AMD, HRE and other acronyms

AMD and the HRE may have something in common besides forming part of the ever-growing collection of three letter acronyms. Voltaire famously quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire. The appellation Holy Roman Empire was a complete misnomer. It seems AMD may be the same.

Like most people I like to make sense of stories that appear in media reports, especially those boldly proclaiming that, “the world is about to end”. These stories are becoming common place nowadays.

The Y2K reports will no doubt be recalled. It was predicted that all computers will malfunction at the turn of the millennium and how, as a consequence of this “the world will end story”, billions were spent worldwide on computers and computer systems. More recently a worldwide health pandemic was declared as it was predicted the world would be swept by a new strand of the flu, the Swine Flu or N1H1, which it was predicted would kill more persons than the 1918 Spanish pandemic. It is predicted that the world will end because of man-made activities that are causing climate change. And then Climategate occurred from which it appears that the data on which the predictions were made was controlled and being manipulated.

And now in South Africa we have AMD, which I know very little about but which has had a great deal of media coverage. But like other end of the world stories the AMD tale makes little sense to me. What makes a great deal of sense to me, which is a mere common sense explanation of what is happening, does not appear in the media; the ground water is returning to its natural level. Hence the purpose of this article is to explain what I believe is happening.

It seems to me that the rising water has precious little to do with the mines. The M in AMD is a misnomer. What is happening is that the groundwater is returning to its natural level. I am stating the problem as a simple question; ‘Is the rising water simply the groundwater returning to its natural level?’ No-one seems to ask this fundamental question. The question deserves a simple yes or no, which is not forthcoming.

Historically, it appears to me, what has happened is this. Groundwater is a common enough feature. That is the reason why boreholes are possible. Under the ground is water and the level where this water is encountered is called the water table. The water table on the Witwatersrand is in some places quite high.

In a recent court case, the cause of electrical switches that continually tripped was deemed to be faulty cables. So it was decided to dig up the cables. When the trenches were opened and the cables exposed it was noticed that steam emitted from the plastic insulated cables. Plastic does not generate water or steam and the case says nothing about the water, or where it came from but dealt only about the steam. In this case the cables were immersed in the groundwater and if this view is correct then the water table in that area was about half a metre below the ground level. This would be important to know because the current carrying capacity of the cables should be rated for the environment. So it should be clear that in many cases the natural level of the ground water is very close to the ground level.

So, this leads to the question why is the water table now a problem and not before? Of course it is not possible to mine in water so when mining started, in the late 1800s, water pumps were installed to pump water out of the mines. By doing so, the natural level of the water table measured from the ground level increased significantly. So for more than a century water has been pumped out to facilitate mining, lowering the water level. Now that mining is ceasing, the water table is returning to its natural level.

So the rising water level is not a mining phenomenon. It is a natural phenomenon. The rising water is not being caused by mining. Exactly the opposite is true. Mining activities prevented the water from rising. It is difficult to see the basis of any argument holding the mines responsible for the rising water. After all, they have spent many decades preventing the problem at no cost to the public. If anything, they have been performing a public duty at no cost; they should be in line for a reimbursement of some of the costs.

So I have great difficulties seeing where the M for mines fits in, in the three letter acronym AMD.

If the mines did not create this problem this raises the next question, is the state financially responsible, at all, for the problem of the rising water? At a first glance the answer appears to be no. It is difficult to see why the rising water should be a state problem. If we take the example of the cables, does this mean the factory owner has a claim against the state to come to the factory and lower the water table? It is difficult to see why that should be so.

If a company, which owns a building with a deep basement, now finds water seeping into the basement, does the company have a claim on the state to come and remove the water? I would have thought the answer to be no. The company should install its own sump and pumps. On the face of it, groundwater does not appear to be a state problem.

There is no problem if someone wants to make a case for state involvement. I would like to read the basis of that case. It is currently simply accepted and assumed it is a state problem.

It is difficult see where the D for drainage fits in. Possibly it is not intended for the D to be by itself and it should be MD for mine-drainage. D for drainage cannot be true. The word drainage implies draining something. So if a basement is full of water it can be said that water will be drained out of the basement.

If I am correct in identifying the source of the problem as the ground water returning to its natural level then no-one can seriously be suggesting that drainage of anything is contemplated. What is contemplated is surely to restrain the groundwater level at a predetermined level. Maybe someone has the idea that water will be drained out of some mines to allow those mines to continue to operate. That is of course what mines have been doing at their own expense for a century. If mine drainage is contemplated, which mines are intended to be drained? I cannot see where drainage fits in so, D too is a misnomer as is MD.

Some reports speak of decanting water out of mines. Decantation takes place when liquid is taken from a large container and poured into a smaller container, usually leaving the sediment behind. Now I have great difficulty in discovering into which container it is intended to decant the ‘mine’ water.

I also have difficulties in understanding where the A for acid is supposed to come from, especially when it is called mine-acid. The mining activities did not involve sufficient acid to contaminate billions of litres of underground water for all time to come.

The argument (which is by no means expressed logically or coherently) puts forward the proposition that the acidic aspect forms when ore and waste material containing sulphide minerals such a pyrite are exposed to water and oxygen. One can understand how this can happen, for example when rain falls onto an ore dump or tailings and leaches out from the tailings, but how does this happen in a dark disused water-filled mine 3 000 m underground? Where is the oxygen coming from, unless there is sufficient oxygen in the water? These things are not spelt out.

Once again the chemical reaction seems to be a normal consequence with little connection to mining. Once the groundwater returns to its natural level all the disused underground workings will be filled with water, it is difficult so see where the oxygen will come from to make the water acidic. And if this happens, what is the connection with mining?

So it seems AMD like HRE is a description that does not fit – it appears to be a misnomer.


This instalment of Legally Speaking was contributed by Professor Robert W Vivian, a leading authority on insurance and risk management. He has written a number of books on South Africa’s business history.

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