Merriespruit, 22 February 1994

The events of this day 23 years ago, 22 February 1994, remain as fresh in the memories of many people of the Free State’s goldfield as they did in the immediate aftermath of the Merriespruit Dam catastrophe.

On the evening of that day in 1994, a 2.5-metre high flood poured out of the Merriespruit No 4 tailings dam carrying 600,000 cubic metres of water and tailings over a distance of 4 kilometres through the Virginia suburb of Merriespruit. The flood engulfed 80 homes, taking the lives of 17 people relaxing or sleeping in their homes. The Merriespruit mine’s tailings dam had burst after a torrential thunderstorm that dumped an unprecedented 5 centimetres of water onto the site in the short space of half an hour. The downpour led to the dam’s wall being breached, releasing the flood of water and tailings onto an unsuspecting and peaceful suburbs.

At that time, residue dams, including that of Merriespruit, were built with conventional technology using the “semi-dry paddock” system. It is a system whereby a “daywall” perimeter is constructed and allowed to settle and to dry under supervision before slurry is deposited, normally at night into the so-called “nightpan”. Then as, now, a penstock is normally located near the centre of the dam to drain water away from the slurry as well as from natural rainfall. And this is how the Merriespruit No 4 dam had been designed in the 1970s. Houses in the Virginia suburb of Merriespruit had already been built and the community established long before any work had started to establish the dam.

The official investigation showed that No 4 dam was in an unacceptable state before its wall’s collapse. Despite legislative safety requirements at the time, the dam did not have sufficient and mandated freeboard to cope with a once-in-a-hundred-years storm. And it had been known for some years that the dam wall was sloughing, though nothing was done to rectify the situation. This was the finding of the official inquest and investigation into the catastrophe – mine management and the contractors managing the dam were found to be directly responsible for the collapse, largely because cost-cutting had reduced the number of skilled people responsible for the dam’s maintenance and because skilled people had been replaced by people with far-less experience and knowledge.

The Merriespruit disaster led to changes in the laws governing safety with a new Code of Practice for Mine Residue Deposits. This in itself derived from work by the CSIR that gave rise in 1995 to the Draft Code of Practice for the Design, Operation and Closure of Tailings Dams. Today all active dams are fitted with ring mains that carry excess water to a return-water dam that can manage sudden or excessive water flows from penstocks. Mandatory freeboard heights have been increased to ensure that perimeter walls cannot be overwhelmed and maintenance of dams cannot be delegated to individuals with inadequate experience.

In addition, new regulations were promulgated concerning the proximity of housing to tailings dams. Today, house building is only allowed if it is located at least a kilometre from a tailings dam. And it is certainly not allowed downslope of a dam. These developments are all part of the mining industry’s steady progress towards ever-safer mine operations.

As the mining industry recalls and mourns the lives of those men, women and children whose lives were cut short on that evening of 1994, we recommit ourselves to ensuring that mining is safe for our country’s mineworkers and for their families.