Victory for environmental rights: Department of Environmental Affairs makes environmental licences automatically available
25 April 2016 at 7:00 am
Many of you following the work of the Centre for Environmental Rights will be aware of our longstanding campaign for automatic, online public access to environmental licences and compliance data.
Last week, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced that it will now make environmental licences available to the public automatically, without requiring submission of a request in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).
This announcement is a huge and long-awaited victory for transparency in environmental governance, and we commend the Minister and Department of Environmental Affairs for their commitment to open governance and realisation of the Constitutional rights to access to information, just administrative action and environmental rights.
The announcement comes just ahead of Freedom Week, a series of civil society events celebrating democracy and freedom between 27 April and 3 May 2016, and signals a shift in environment authorities’ approach to citizen engagement in environmental governance.
Environmental licences and permits set out the conditions under which environmentally harmful operations may be conducted. The CER has long argued that the public has a right to know what those conditions are, and to monitor compliance with them. However until now, it has in many cases been extremely difficult for members of the public, civil society, and the media to access these documents. Failure to comply with these conditions may lead to suspension or withdrawal of licences, and is usually also a criminal offence under environmental laws.
The permits listed in DEA’s new notice published under PAIA’s section 15 include environmental authorisations, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, Biodiversity Act permits and General permits for Boat Based Whale Watching and White Shark Cage Diving.
While we regard this decision of the DEA as a significant victory, we also see this as a first step towards the longer-term goal of automatic, online public access not only to environmental licences, including those held by the Department of Water & Sanitation and the Department of Mineral Resources, but also to reports and data that demonstrate whether companies are complying with environmental licence requirements.
The DEA’s notice under section 15 of PAIA indicates that members of the public can email Phumzile Sabeka ([email protected]) for copies of these licences in relation to specific facilities, and that certain information may be redacted in accordance with PAIA.