Assessment of platinum mine tailings storage facilities : an ecotoxicological perspective
Jubileus, Mandy Theresa
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South Africa is one of the most important mining countries in the world, hosting the world's largest reserves of platinum group metals (PGMs). Even though mining is clearly an important activity in South Africa, contributing approximately US$ 7.4 billion annually to the countries' gross domestic product (GDP), the costs to the environment are not insignificant. One of the most severe environmental aspects associated with mining is the storage of mineral waste on tailings storage facilities due to their impacts on air quality, ground water quality, aesthetics and land use. It is also unknown whether the environmental effects of tailings storage facilities increase or decrease over time. The aim of this study was to determine the ecotoxicity of platinum tailings storage facilities of different ages by means of soil physical and chemical analysis, earthworm ecotoxicological studies, dehydrogenase activity and soil mesofauna studies. Samples were obtained from three platinum tailings storage facilities of different ages of which two were already rehabilitated while the third was still operational at the time this study was performed. The latter was used as a negative control for the purpose of the study. Soil samples were physically and chemically analysed. Earthworm ecotoxicological studies were conducted to determine changes in biomass, reproduction, mortality, neutral red retention times and tissue metal concentrations. Dehydrogenase activity was determined before the introduction of earthworms and manure, after introductions of manure and after introductions of earthworms and manure. Soil mesofauna were extracted and identified in order to determine species richness, diversity, abundance and functional grouping. Soil chemical analysis indicated that concentrations of certain heavy metals, especially chrome (Cr), present in platinum tailings materials could have a potential effect on microorganisms, microbial processes and earthworms. Earthworm ecotoxicological results indicated that earthworms that bioaccumulated higher levels of heavy metals showed poor hatchability of cocoons. Dehydrogenase activity indicated that earthworms play a significant role in increasing the number and biomass of soil microbes because significant increases in dehydrogenase activity were noticed after the addition of earthworms to platinum tailings materials. Results from the earthworm ecotoxicological studies, dehydrogenase activity, and soil mesofauna composition indicated that environmental impacts of tailings storage facilities did not increase with age, but is more likely to be an indication of the rehabilitation measures administered to the different tailings storage facilities.