Real Estate News - Dumps in South Africa prove golden

JOHANNESBURG: The hulks of stepped, golden sand - looking from the air like rows of pre-Columbian pyramids - have long been part of Johannesburg's cityscape. Now, they are fast disappearing as mining companies cash in on high gold prices and reprocess the mountains of what they once dumped as waste.

The dumps of crushed rock and sand - once discarded in the mining process - yield only about 0.45 grams, or 1.5 hundredths of an ounce, of gold for every reprocessed metric ton. But with the precious metal at more than $600 an ounce, even dumps containing the lowest grade ore are proving to be, well, gold mines.

Johannesburg is built - literally and economically - on mining. The discovery of a seam of gold deposits led to the establishment of Johannesburg in 1886 and some of the dumps date back to the city's early days as a frontier mining town. Efforts to reprocess the dumps are a modern-day gold rush fueled by soaring prices for the precious metal.

The extraction of gold from the dumps by mining companies took off in the early 1980s, when the bullion price shot up to $800 an ounce.

Since then, DRDGold, the only company working the mine dumps in and around Johannesburg, has removed 203 million tons of dumps, recovering 90 tons of gold for the mining companies and clearing 549 acres, or 222 hectares, of land.

"We are manufacturing real estate within the expanding central business district but, just as importantly, with the dumps being a source of dust and water pollution, the general environment is being cleaned up," said Charles Symons, regional general manager for DRDGold.

The treated sand is being moved to three huge dumps on 1,483 acres of land in the south of the city. In time, Symons said, it may be feasible to reprocess even that material.

Johannesburg's 200 or so dumps follow the reef of gold deposits that runs below the rocky region, stretching east to west.

Fifty years ago, the dumps formed from mining waste were situated well outside the city limits.

"No one cared about them," he said. "There were no environmental regulations."

When mining stopped and the city expanded, the dumps were covered with vegetation to stabilize them.

Now huge open tracts, scraped down to red soil, are increasingly noticeable.

Menell's Dump in the southeastern part of the city is expected to be cleared in two years after work on it began in 2002. The 12 million-ton dump is one of those with a better grade of gold, at a yield of 0.65 grams per metric ton.

From the highway it looks as it has for decades, a gently sloping hill. But behind, all that is left is a narrow arc of 66-foot, or 20-meter, cliffs of hard-caked sand. Working around the clock, the dump is cleared away by a small group of men and three front-end loaders.

They leave behind a moonscape of craters and rock towers set against the city. The sites have become a popular location for film shoots, Symons said, with crews even bringing their own palm trees to sites that lend themselves to desert or oasis scenes.

The coarse sand is mixed with water and then pumped to a tank and ultimately to the gold-processing plant. The finer, more compacted material is broken down under the pressure of huge water cannons.

Symons is optimistic about the gold price staying high, but that does not stop him from keeping a close eye on the bullion index.

So far, Symons has not been able to get his hands on the city's most famous mine dump, which has an above-average yield of gold but also supporters who see it as a landmark worth protecting.

The defunct Top Star Drive-in sits on top of the dump on the city's eastern edge, offering the most spectacular panoramic views of Johannesburg. The stretch of tarmac up a winding road has been the scene of many midnight movies, rave parties and swap meets.

Redeveloped as a drive-in in the 1960s, the dump dates back to about 1887. Now heritage organizations are trying to stop DRDGold from flattening it. The dump was declared a provisional heritage site last year, but Symons said DRDGold was appealing the decision and was determined to go ahead with reprocessing plans.

For Elsabe Brink, chairman of the heritage authority, it is an "iconic landmark, a symbol of Johannesburg and the richest gold fields the world has ever known."

About 40 percent of Johannesburg's mine dumps have disappeared and, along with them, much of the city's early history, Brink said.

"Gold is the story of our country," she said. "What happens in Johannesburg reverberates across the country. We have to have something to show of this."

Brink would like to see the dump develop into a park where the story of mining in South Africa would be told and the miners who faced dangerous tasks under terrible conditions would be honored.

For Symons, however, the Top Star dump is an "eyesore."

"There must be better ways of preserving this history than a heap of sand," he said. "There will be dumps left, some will remain."

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