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Mine blasting is a Constitutional rights issue

2 August 2022 at 11:52 am

Article by Danjelle Midgely, Attorney at CER. Published by Mail & Guardian

Mine blasting, which affects hundreds of fenceline communities around South Africa on a daily or weekly basis, is damaging to infrastructure, disruptive to everyday life, causes deafening noise and releases toxic dust linked to numerous long-term health conditions. If South Africa is to effectively address this pervasive environmental rights issue, the impacts of mine blasting must first be recognised as a direct contravention of the Constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health and well-being.

Last year a Northern Cape manganese mine broke the South African blasting record by moving 2.3 million tons of rock in seconds with the use of 530 tons of explosives in 2300 blast holes. Not all blasts are this huge. Many mines conduct smaller blasts on a daily or weekly basis as a normal part of their operations. These blasts – conducted in order extract minerals by using explosives to break down solid rock or ore – can have devastating consequences for communities who live nearby.

Shockwaves, bomb-like explosions, toxic dust

Mine blasting causes ground and air vibration shockwaves, the intensity of which depend on the size of the blast, the depth of the explosion and the distance from the blast site.

Shockwaves from mine blasting can have severe physical and psychological impacts on communities living close to mines. As with many inequalities, the impacts of mine blasting disproportionately affect women, youth, the elderly and those with disabilities.

In my work at the Centre for Environmental Rights as an attorney in the Activist Support and Training programme, I have seen the effects of mine blasting on communities from Newcastle to Rustenburg. In our engagements with affected communities from all over South Africa we hear the same plea: We cannot continue to suffer like this. Mine blasting is making our lives unbearable.

The first impacts we witness when visiting mining-affected communities living adjacent to mines are the cracks to houses, halls and churches with broken windows, cracked walls and floors and damaged roofs. The cracks to houses pose a real threat to the safety of residents who live in fear of a collapse. In addition to the possible future harm caused by collapsing buildings, community members we spoke to showed us large fragments of “flyrock” thrown into the air by an explosion at the neighbouring mine which have landed in yards and school fields (miraculously not harming anyone on these occasions). Even if your house isn’t in danger of collapse, the cracks let in rain, wind and the pervasive dust which is often released by a blast and which coats everything.

Blasting dust can contain toxic fumes such as carbon monoxide as a result of the explosives used, as well as fine particles from the material being fragmented. Court cases document the increased number of children who live in proximity to mines having high rates of respiratory disorders and asthma.

After an explosion, the dust cloud can rise high and settle on communities far away from the blast site. People hang sheets on their walls and under their cracked ceilings to try capture it. Dust also pollutes water sources used by communities including rain water tanks, buckets and zinc baths used to collect water from communal sources to take home. It clings to washing hanging on lines in backyards. This often adds a considerable burden to family-members – most often women – who must constantly wash, sweep and scrub the walls and yards to keep their households dust-free.

Some communities complain that the loud wailing sirens which sometimes warn of an impending explosion cause their own form of trauma, in addition to the bomb-like blast sound itself. Communities who live close to mines are sometimes evacuated before large blasts – collected in buses, given a sandwich and then driven to an empty field to wait out the explosions. This is a major inconvenience for anyone trying to study, or busy preparing food for the family, for elderly people or those who use wheelchairs or are sick.

The combination of the psychological and physical impacts communities face from mine blasting makes it clear why this is a major concern across the country and one which is calling out for better regulation and enforcement.

Mine blasting is poorly regulated in South Africa

What few legal protections are offered to communities living in close proximity to mines are often contravened by mines or not enforced.

For instance, South Africa has no standards providing limits for ground or air shockwaves caused by blasting.

Right now blasting is mainly governed by the Mine Health and Safety Act and its regulations. This Act regulates health and safety requirements for mine workers, but does contain some provisions which extend beyond the employer relationship to include areas around mines.

The Act imposes a general duty on mines to ensure that persons who are not employees, but who may be directly affected by the activities at the mine, are not exposed to any hazards to their health and safety “as far as reasonably practicable.” Mines are also required to have a policy concerning the protection of such persons. There is therefore a legal duty for mines to ensure that communities nearby are not exposed to hazards to their health and safety.

Regulations under the Act prohibit mine blasting from within 500 metres from public buildings, thoroughfares, powerlines or places where people gather – unless the Principal Inspector of Mines has given written permission and the mine complied with conditions. In order to obtain written permission, a mine must ensure that the closer blasting does not pose a significant risk. In its application for permission, the mine must conduct a risk assessment, submit a sketch plan showing affected structures and consult with the owners of the structures.

In our experience, the communities we have engaged on this issue have not even been aware that such permission from the DMRE was required let alone that their participation was a mandatory requirement for the mine to be able to conduct blasting so close to their homes, schools, clinics and churches.

An opportunity to have a say on future regulations

Section 24(a) of the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being. Mine blasting poses serious risks to both.

The inclusion of well-being in the Constitutional right is not symbolic – it must have real meaning and be capable of vindication. As such, the Constitutional right to well-being is an important tool for communities seeking to address blasting impacts.

In June the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy published a Draft Mine Health and Safety Amendment Bill 2022 for public comment before 29 July 2022. If we want the situation to improve, the call for public comments is an important opportunity for affected communities, civil society and interested citizens to raise the profile of mine blasting to Constitutional rights issue and to demand its regulation be improved.

The Centre for Environmental Right’s comments on the Mining Health and Safety Amendment Bill are available for use by other organisations.