South Africa has the highest number of dangerous tailing dams—structures constructed, often by mining companies, to store waste in liquid form. The dams are considered hazardous if improperly handled and have resulted in environmental disasters and deaths many times around the world.
Wider environmental hazards arising out of mining operations in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa, range from river contamination from chemicals used in mining processes to improper rehabilitation of mined out operations.
Tailing dams have emerged as the latest significant environmental risk factor from mining and South Africa has the highest number of the riskiest of these, according to an investigative report by Reuters.
As the risk of collapse of these dams looms, South Africa still has memories of the collapse of a tailing dam at Merriespruit in 1994 which killed 17 people after flooding a Free State surbub.
In 1974, another tailings dam at Bafokeng also failed. Only recently, a tailings dam operated by Vale in Brazil collapsed, driving a slurry of mining waste downstream towards a small town in the countryside and bringing environmental contamination.
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