2015: The Centre for Environmental Rights’ Year in Review
9 December 2015 at 9:00 am
2015 has been an intense and rewarding year at the Centre for Environmental Rights. This year, together with our partners and clients, we continued to challenge decisions that propel South Africa further down the path of dependence on fossil fuels, particularly coal. We disputed decisions to allow coal mining that threaten precious water resources, and the communities who rely on that water. We confronted decisions to allow the burning of coal in areas that already have poor air quality, affecting the health and well-being of vulnerable people. We also exposed the poor compliance records of many of South Africa’s big corporates, and their unwillingness to disclose these records to their shareholders. We compelled local authorities and companies to disclose environmental records.
During this year, our attorneys and staff have travelled all over South Africa: from Cape Town to Tzaneen to Middelburg and Emalahleni to Durban. We talked about environmental rights, violations and remedies with community activists and organisations across the country, and this year we also started to reach out to public interest environmental lawyers beyond our borders in India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Colombia. Our Corporate Accountability and Transparency work has put us in boardrooms with CEOs and environmental managers of some of South Africa’s largest polluting companies, and with institutional investors and asset managers. We have also presented to members of Parliament, a mayoral appeal committee on the Mpumalanga Highveld, and officials in national, and provincial and local government.
Here are some of the highlights of our year at the CER:
- In February 2015, the National Air Quality Officer approved the applications of a large group of polluters, including Eskom and Sasol, for postponement of their obligations to comply with minimum emission standards made under the Air Quality Act. This decision had been vigorously opposed by CER on behalf of groundWork, Earthlife Africa JHB, the Highveld Environmental Justice Alliance, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance and other community organisations. Read our take on that decision here: Environmental Rights Blog: Breathing space for polluters at the expense of public health. And yet there were also some wins, including requirements for increased pollution controls at 9 Eskom power stations.
- In March 2015, we celebrated Human Rights Day in Davidsonville, one
of the towns on Johannesburg’s west Rand affected by acid mine drainage.
- In April 2015, De Beers withdrew their opposition to a court application by our clients Conservation South Africa to compel the Department of Mineral Resources to disclose records about their reduced rehabilitation obligations at the Namaqualand Mines. In the same month, Sasol finally withdrew their application against the Minister of Environmental Affairs to set aside the Air Quality Act minimum emission standards (CER represented three organisations admitted as friends of the court in that case). In the same month, in an important case for transparency in environmental governance, our clients the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance instituted legal proceedings in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court against eThekwini Metro for refusing to disclose the air pollution licences it had issued to the Engen and SAPREF refineries in South Durban. eThekwini and Engen oppose this application.
- In May 2015 we hosted a seminar in Cape Town on climate change: Time to rise up: Climate change must become a pressing environmental rights issue for all South Africans. This was coincidentally also the month in which, on behalf of Earthlife Africa JHB, we launched an appeal against the environmental authorisation issued for the proposed new Thabametsi coal-fired power plant in water and climate stressed Limpopo. We expect the outcome of that appeal by the end of 2015. (In September 2015, we made submissions in Parliament on South Africa’s legal obligations to take steps to mitigate against and adapt to climate change.)
- May 2015 also saw the publication of a series of aerial photographs taken of the devastation caused by coal mining and power in Mpumalanga: In pictures: What coal is doing to the Mpumalanga Highveld. This followed an article by CER attorney Tracey Davies published in GroundUp and the Daily Maverick in September 2014, which is still being read and shared in 2015: Mpumalanga crisis: why is nobody listening?
- In June 2015, CER attorneys assisted the Traditional Healers Association to lay criminal charges against Australian mining company Aquila Resources Pty Ltd and its directors for numerous violations of environmental and water laws. June was also the month in which our clients the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance and groundWork publicly released the long-sought ArcelorMittal South Africa Master Plan for its Vanderbijlpark site – the record that it refused to release for more than a decade, until the Supreme Court of Appeal ordered AMSA to release it at the end of 2014.
- In June 2015, our new project Safeguarding our Seabeds went public. This project, supported by the Safeguarding our Seabeds Coalition of NGOs, community fishers and the commercial fishing industry, is aimed at establishing a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining in South Africa; supporting the expansion of offshore marine protected areas; and support the development of an effective marine spatial planning network for South Africa.
- In July 2015, in collaboration with the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCON) the CER started rolling out a series of environmental rights training workshops for mining-affected communities. In August 2015, CER attorneys stepped in to secure the release of three activists from Burgersfort in Limpopo who were arrested after a group of community members tried to engage with a mining company about alleged environmental rights violations.
- In August 2015, we also welcomed the admission of our first candidate attorney as an attorney, Ayesha Motala. Since then, two of our other CAs have passed their Board exams and will be admitted in February 2016. August was also the month in which CER attorney Robyn Hugo was chosen one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans for 2015. We are proud of them.
- In September 2014, we launched court proceedings behalf of 8 civil society and community organisations to set aside a mining right granted by the Minister of Mineral Resources inside a Mpumalanga protected area, and a national freshwater ecosystem priority area. That application is being opposed by the mining company, and we expect it to go to court in 2016.
- September 2015 was also the month in which we launched an important new report called Full Disclosure: The Truth about Corporate Environmental Compliance in South Africa. By comparing the extent of compliance by these companies with environmental law with the extent to which non-compliance with environmental laws was disclosed by 20 listed companies to their shareholders between 2008 and 2014, many companies which have regularly been hailed as shining examples for their approach to managing environmental, social and governance factors have in fact committed serious breaches of environmental laws during the assessment period. In many cases, companies did not provide accurate information to their shareholders about their environmental impacts and non-compliances. Full Disclosure received a great deal of interest in the media and the business community.
- In October 2015, the CER made formal submissions to the Minister of Environmental Affairs regarding weaknesses in the regulations on dust control, particularly dust arising as a result of mining operations, and requested her to prioritise the urgent review of these regulations.
- In November 2015, we launched our 5th report on transparency in environmental governance titled Signs of Hope? This report recognised the improvement by the Department of Water & Sanitation of its compliance with the Promotion of Access to Information Act, and criticised the Department of Mineral Resources for its continued poor performance on access to information. The report also acknowledges the strides made by the Department of Environmental Affairs towards greater proactive disclosure of environmental records. We look forward to seeing all environmental licences and compliance records online and easily available to all.
In 2016, you can expect to see an intensification of our legal challenges of new coal mines and power plants, and increased support for our community partners fighting air and water pollution on the Highveld, in the Vaal Triangle, the Waterberg and in South Durban. You can also expect to see new work being done around protection of strategic water source areas, and protection of wildlife.
We thank all our loyal clients, partners and funders, big and small, for their ongoing support for the CER, and wish you all a peaceful holiday. The CER reopens on 11 January 2016.