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MEI Online: Commodities: Metallic Ores: Platinum Group Metals: Latest News: May 27th 2003

 
    

:: AngloPlat Faces Pollution Nightmare  
By: Geraldine Bennett

In its latest audited figures, Anglo Platinum of South Africa discloses that it pumped 12% more chemical emissions into the Rustenburg bowl last year, releasing 68 700 tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. The world’s largest platinum producer is also accused of causing pollution so severe that it is making children sick. Locals have started to hit back, raising the spectre of class actions and as a last resort, threatening to force the closure of a deficient plant, in the process bringing production to a halt.

Since January 2002 SO2 emissions from the AngloPlat operation near Rustenburg have fluctuated between around 150 tons per day (tpd) to 217 tpd. By comparison, over the past two years Impala Platinum has brought its emissions down from the same level as its larger rival to a more manageable 20tpd and is aiming to halve that in future. Pollution from the third platinum producer in the area, UK-headquartered Lonmin, is “negligible”. Also, no disclosure has been made of the AngloPlat plant’s emissions of the more difficult to monitor sulphur trioxide (SO3), a chemical causing illness in the short-term.

According to Rustenburg medical practitioner, Dr Pieter Wagner, SO3 causes disproportionately high levels of sinusitis and upper respiratory tract infections, which can lead to a break down of the immune system. SO3 attaches itself to the mucous membranes and acts in the same way as sniffing battery acid would. “It destroys the first line of immune action, the mucous membranes, leading to the destruction of cilia and cells, permitting bacteria straight into the body," says Wagner. “Eighty percent of the patients I treat suffer from complaints of this nature”, he says, and adds that this “raises the question of ultimate susceptibility to cancer”.

With a R1.6 billion Anglo platinum Conversion Plant (ACP) nowhere near anticipated operational levels, and maintenance on the old acid plant having been largely ignored in favour of the “world first technology” in the PGM sector, SO2 emissions in Rustenburg peaked in February/March 2003 between “170 and 200 tpd”. This led to the “old” acid plant to being shut down for emergency maintenance, culminating in local schools being temporarily closed with children reportedly “struggling to breathe”, in some cases “coughing to the point of vomiting”.

AngloPlats admits it did not anticipate the problems associated with its decision to go with the Canadian Hatch designed ACP, the consequences of which have seen the group spending R75.5m since 1999 on “throwing money into almost rebuilding the old acid plant," according to data presented by the company’s technical manager Philimon Mukumbe. At the public meeting to give feedback on the “Waterval Smelter upgrade and the need to revise the provisional scheduled process registration certificate” various Non Governmental Organisations criticised the lack of transparency and integrity in statements made by AngloPlat over the past three years.

According to Chris de Bruyn, Chairman of the North West Eco Forum, AngloPlat has systematically “over-promised and under-delivered”. In stark contrast Impala Platinum and Lonmin in Rustenburg have brought emission levels significantly lower on less costly equipment. Johan Theron, consulting metallurgist at Implats confirms the smaller platinum producer has successfully managed to bring SO2 emissions down from around 150 tpd to below 20tpd over the last two years, and according to Witold Bryszewski, Chief Air Pollution Control Officer (CAPCO) for the NW Province, Lonmin will soon be close to “negligible emissions”. Implats, not complacent, continues to target SO2 emissions of less than 10tpd.

Keith Hines, ACP Plant Manager, AngloPlats admits: “Our projections have been optimistic”. However he adds “we are using new technology and the approach has had to be methodical in an uncharted area. We have experienced all sorts of problems commissioning the new equipment”, he says. When asked whether the new ACP plant, once in full operation, will “take care of fugitive gases” (gases which cannot be measured as they do not get released through the stack), a demure Hines stated, "…it would not”. He did add under pressure from Chairman of Kroondal Environmental Forum Manfred Suhr that the group “has plans …although these are not yet in progress”. Fugitive gases represent occupational health hazards for workers “on the floor."

 

   

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