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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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Environmental issues

Some of the issues that are of importance to the mining team include:

The rehabilitation of derelict and ownerless mines

The DMR has determined that there are more than 6,000 derelict and ownerless mines that require rehabilitation through the use of state funds.

Acid mine drainage

Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) occurs when polluted water decants from mines and flows over pyrite, which is commonly known as “fool’s gold”. When pyrite is exposed to oxygen and water, a reaction takes place between the sulphides in the ore rock, and sulphuric acid is formed. Rivers take on a yellow, rusty colour from the iron oxide in the water, which the mining industry euphemistically calls “yellow boy” or “iron boy”, making it sound innocuous, when in it is one of the most dangerous threats to South Africa’s water resources. In some instances, water takes on a brilliant turquoise colour, indicating high levels of aluminium. This water is very acidic and high in salts, and also contains heavy metals. When AMD is released into the environment, it can pollute both groundwater and surface water. Its effects are devastating as it leaches into aquifers or flows into rivers and streams. It sterilises soils and contaminates food crops, puts fauna and flora at risk, and is dangerous to human health.The problem of AMD is particularly pressing in the context of South Africa’s legacy of derelict and ownerless mines. Some of these are already causing AMD, while many are ticking time-bombs. According to a report by the Council for Geoscience (CGS), by the end of May 2008 there were 5 906 “officially listed” derelict and ownerless mines in South Africa. The CGS classified 1 730 of these mines as “high risk”, estimating they would require approximately R28.5 billion of the total R30 billion then estimated cost of rehabilitation. In August 2015 it was reported that the estimated cost of this rehabilitation was R60 billion

Acid mine drainage from coal in eMalahleni and gold on the Witwatersrand is such a serious matter that cabinet convened an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) to investigate this threat and compile a report detailing the estimated costs of resolving the issue. This committee includes the Ministers of Water, Environmental Affairs, Mineral Resources, Finance, Science and Technology, and the Minister in the Presidency for National Planning. The severity of the matter was also recognised in the 2012 National Water Resource Strategy, which stated that acid mine drainage and municipal wastewater pollution had “reached unacceptable levels”.

In 2011, the CER and 51 other civil society organisations and individuals addressed letters to the Inter-Ministerial Task Team on Acid Mine Drainage, urging it to take action.

Here are some useful resources on acid mine drainage:

Proposed shale gas exploration in the Karoo

Shell and a few other companies have applied for exploration rights in respect of large areas of the Karoo which will, if granted, involve hydraulic fracturing . Following the submission of the applications, the Minister of Mineral Resources declared a moratorium on the processing of new applications for exploration and production rights in respect of the Karoo. The moratorium does not affect the applications that have already been submitted, on the condition that no hydraulic fracturing may take place if those rights are granted until regulations have been published for the onshore unconventional gas exploration and production.On 3 June 2015, the Minister of Mineral Resources published the Regulations for Petroleum Exploration and Production. However, Treasure the Karoo Action Group is challenging the legality of those regulations in the High Court. The CER commented on a draft version of the Regulations.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in collaboration with various specialists and organs of state, is conducting a strategic environmental assessment for shale gas development in the Karoo.

The environmental and socio-economic impact of mining on communities

The detrimental environmental impacts of mining on communities are both direct and indirect. Mining can lead to the loss of natural resources on which communities rely for their livelihoods and well-being, including water resources, agricultural land and important biodiversity. The pollution of the air, soil and water caused by mining furthermore results in pernicious impacts on the health of communities and the socio-demographic changes brought by mining can lead to social conflict. The industrialisation of a landscape through mining can also result in an impact on the psychological well-being of especially rural communities. Indirect impacts may include food insecurity and climate change impacts.Visit the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa‘s page

The videos below are illustrative of the struggles of mining-affected communities:

Mining in protected, sensitive and strategic areas

Mining and prospecting rights are routinely granted in respect of environmentally and hydrologically significant areas in South Africa. It is therefore imperative that protection is given to those areas where no prospecting or mining should ever take place.In addition to the declaration of protected areas, there are at least two legislative mechanisms that can be utilised by the Minister of Mineral Resources or the Minister of Environmental Affairs to declare certain areas as prohibited for mining (so-called “no-go areas”). Section 49 of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, 2002 (MPRDA) and section 24(2A) of the National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (NEMA) afford the Minister of Mineral Resources and the Minister of Environmental Affairs respectively with the power to declare no-go areas. In terms of the MPRDA provision, a prohibition can be imposed on the granting of prospecting or mining rights in respect of identified no-go areas and the NEMA provisions provide for the possibility of a prohibition on the granting of environmental authorisations for mining in identified no-go areas.

Despite repeated calls by civil society for the declaration of no-go areas, the Minister of Mineral Resources has not yet exercised his or her power in terms of section 49 of the MPRDA to protect environmentally significant and sensitive areas. Section 24(2A) is a relatively new section and has to date not been utilised by the Minister of Environmental Affairs.