Inaction on waste condemns South Africa's poor to life in toxic dumps

Written by  GEOFFREY YORK of The Globe and Mail Wednesday, 11 March 2015 18:36
Rate this item
(0 votes)

TUDOR SHAFT, SOUTH AFRICA — The Globe and Mail

For years, Patience Mjadu smeared her face with the yellow sludge from the mining dump near her shack. She had seen others do the same. According to local lore, the chemicals were a good cosmetic.

Today her face is damaged and she realizes that the sludge was toxic and radioactive. When the wind rises and the air fills with dust from the mine dump, her chest tightens and she has trouble breathing. The thin walls of her shack, riddled with holes, can’t keep out the toxic dust.

 

South Africa for decades was the world’s biggest gold producer, and most of it came from here: the goldfields around Johannesburg, where the gold rush began in 1886. But while the world consumed the gold from here, authorities have largely ignored the legacy of toxic mine waste, which piles up in hundreds of radioactive dumps and dams that contain uranium and other dangerous metals near the homes of more than a million people.

“We’re sick of living in this dangerous place,” says Ms. Mjadu, a 46-year-old mother of four children who has lived in the impoverished shack community of Tudor Shaft for nearly 20 years, just metres from the radioactive dump.

“It’s very dangerous for children. The soil isn’t good for us. We need to move – we’re getting sick.”

Studies have found radiation levels in Tudor Shaft up to 13 times above the regulatory limit. And this is far from an isolated case. An estimated 1.6 million people in mining districts around Johannesburg live within a few hundred metres of radioactive sites.

Many of the mines were abandoned by their owners and nobody takes responsibility for them. Scientists and official commissions have issued warnings for decades about the health risks, but the risks were neglected by South African governments during the apartheid era and even after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Those at greatest risk are the poorest of the poor. They live in shacks and can’t afford to move. Many are pleading with the government to move them to safer places, but only a few have been relocated.

“Those who didn’t share the benefits of the mining and didn’t contribute to the pollution are the ones who are paying the price,” says Mariette Liefferink, an environmental activist who has been trying to help the 1,800 people of Tudor Shaft for years. “If you don’t have money, you have no choice – you have to live there.”

Uranium and other potentially toxic metals are among the main byproducts of gold mining. But the residents who live closest to the dumps are victims of a jurisdictional dispute between local governments, the national environment department and a public agency – the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) – all of which deny their own responsibility and point their finger at others.

Ms. Liefferink served on the NNR’s board of directors for three years until resigning in 2012 to protest its inaction on the crisis. While she and the South African environment department have insisted that the NNR must take responsibility for removing the radioactive soil or relocating the people who live near the dumps, the NNR insists that South African government departments must be responsible.

“Because there is confusion, nobody takes action,” says Ms. Liefferink, who is chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.

In one of the main mining regions, the West Rand district near Johannesburg, more than 42 tonnes of dust from mine tailings enter the environment through wind and water every day, one study found. “The people who live downwind and downstream are poor black communities – it hasn’t changed much since apartheid,” Ms. Liefferink says.

Victor Tshivhase, a professor who heads the applied radiation science centre at North-West University in South Africa, took measurements of radiation levels in Tudor Shaft last year. He found that every measurement was at least twice the international limit for annual radiation exposure – and some were as much as 13 times the limit.

“In the case of Tudor Shaft informal settlement, residences are continuously exposed to high levels of radiation,” his study concluded. “It is therefore recommended that the residents be relocated to an alternative safe habitable area.”

Tudor Shaft’s residents have reported a range of illnesses, including skin lesions, eye infections and respiratory problems. They are exposed to toxic dust in the dry season and toxic water flowing from the dump in the rainy season. But there has never been a proper health assessment at the site, so they don’t know the exact link between their illnesses and the radioactive dump.

Tudor Shaft was created in 1996 when the local government forcibly relocated hundreds of people to this site from another informal settlement a few kilometres away.

“I remember it well because it was so terrible,” Ms. Mjadu says. “The government broke our houses and took us here in trucks. It was supposed to be temporary, but it’s been years and years.”

Environmentalists have tried to warn the residents about the radioactive dangers from the tailings dump, but it’s been a difficult task. Even today, the residents grow pumpkins and corn in small gardens on the dump. There is no fence to prevent children from playing in the radioactive waste.

“I come here, I tell them they live in a dangerous place, and then I have to leave,” Ms. Liefferink says. “It fills me with hopelessness. I feel anger and absolute disbelief that this place exists.”

In 2012, acting on advice from the NNR, the local government and a mining company began removing the Tudor Shaft waste dump. About half of the soil was removed, but environmentalists were alarmed that it was being done without risk-assessment studies or consultations, and they obtained a court order to suspend it. While the government relocated 14 families that were living on top of the waste dump, it ignored others who lived just a few metres away. Today the community remains in limbo, still exposed to the radiation threat.

Margaret Molefe, 45, moved here in 2008 because she was unemployed and the shacks were rent-free. But now she fears that the radioactive dump is poisoning her three-year-old son, Sipho.

The boy is tormented by constant itching. He scratches his skin, all over his body, day and night. His mother said it began when he was crawling in the soil of Tudor Shaft as an infant. She has taken him to several doctors without finding a cure.

“I’m very worried,” she says. “It’s going to damage his mind. He’ll be slow in learning, because he’s always scratching and he can’t concentrate on anything. At night he is talking and crying and scratching, even when he is sleeping.”

When she first moved to Tudor Shaft, she didn’t realize that it was dangerous. “But after four years, I realized it was no good. I hear the soil has chemicals in it. I want to take Sipho to a better life, but I can’t afford to move.”

MINING

Court victory for South Africa’s protected areas in Mabola case

On Thursday, the 8th of November 2018, the North Gauteng High Court set aside the 2016 decisions of former Mineral Resources Minister Zwane and the late Environmental Affairs Minister Molewa to permit a new coal mine to be developed in the Mabola Protected Environment near Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga. The case was brought by the coalition of eight civil society organisations challenging a range of authorisations that have permitted an underground coal mine in a strategic water source area and a protected area. The Mabola Protected Environment was declared under the Protected Areas Act in 2014 by the Mpumalanga provincial government as part of the declaration of more than 70 000 hectares of protected area in the Mpumalanga grasslands. This followed years of extensive research and planning by a number of government agencies, including the Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency. In 2016, without public consultation and without notice to the coalition, the two Ministers gave their permission for a large, 15-year coal mine to be built inside the Mabola Protected Environment. The Court set aside the permission and referred the decision back to the two Ministers for reconsideration on the basis that the Ministers did not take their decisions in an open and transparent manner or in a manner that promoted public participation, and that the decisions were therefore procedurally unfair. The court criticised the Ministers for relying on the processes followed by other decision-makers instead of exercising their discretion under the Protected Areas Act independently, referring particularly to their failure to apply a cautionary approach when dealing with “sensitive, vulnerable, highly dynamic or stressed ecosystems” as “an impermissible abdication of decision-making authority”. The court also held that: “a failure to take South Africa’s international responsibilities relation to the environment into account and a failure to take into account that the use and exploitation of non-renewable natural resources must take place in a responsible and equitable manner would not satisfy the ‘higher level of scrutiny’ necessary when considering whether mining activities should be permitted in a protected environment or not. Such failures would constitute a failure by the state of its duties as trustees of vulnerable environment, particularly where it has been stated that ‘most people would agree, when thinking of the tomorrows of unborn people that it is a present moral duty to avoid causing harm to the environment'” (at 11). The permission for this mine given by Molewa and Zwane was the first in South Africa for a new mine to be permitted in a protected environment. Earthlife Africa, the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCON-SA), the Endangered Wildlife Trust, BirdLife South Africa, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD), the Bench Marks Foundation and groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, challenged the late Environmental Affairs’ Minister’s and the former Minerals Minister’s decisions to allow this mine to go ahead. The court ordered that on reconsideration of the application for permission to mine in the Mabola Protected Environment, the Ministers are directed to: comply with sections 3 and 4 of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA); take into account the interests of local communities and the environmental principles referred to in section 2 of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) “with a strict measure of scrutiny”; defer their decisions on reconsideration until after the Environmental Management Programme and Water Use Licence appeals have been determined; not grant permission in terms of section 48(1)(b) of NEMPAA unless a management plan for the Mabola Protected Environment has been approved by the MEC in terms of section 39(2) of the Protected Areas Act and the management plan’s zoning of the area in which the intended mining is to take place permits such mining. The High Court expressed its criticism of “a disturbing feature in the conduct of the Ministers” and endorsed the submission made by counsel for the coalition that “ethical environmental governance and behaviour is enhanced simply by exposing it to the glare of public scrunity”. What resulted was “an unjustifiable and unreasonable departure from the PAJA presripts and lead to procedurally unfair administrative action.” The High Court ordered the Ministers and MEC to pay the coalition’s legal costs on an attorney and client (punitive) scale. “South Africa has long recognised that the grasslands of Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State are incredibly important to South Africa’s natural heritage. The grasslands are important water sources, and home to a range of production sectors that underpin economic development. In the case of Mabola, the Protected Environment falls inside a strategic water source area which feeds some of South Africa’s biggest rivers,” says Yolan Friedmann, Chief Executive Officer of the Endangered Wildlife Trust. “Moreover, protected areas not only help protect our biodiversity – particularly our incredible wildlife – and important natural ecosystems, but are also a key part of South Africa’s reputation as a global tourist destination.” Mashile Phalane, spokesperson for the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCON-SA) says: “This judgement is a victory for environmental justice. We want to see protected areas actually protected against mining by our government as custodians of the environment on behalf of all South Africans. This custodianship is violated if decisions that have such important consequences are taken behind closed doors. MEJCON-SA is deeply invested in issues of accountability. This judgement reinforces the fundamental importance of fair and transparent decision making.” Catherine Horsfield, attorney and mining programme head at the Centre for Environmental Rights, welcomed the judgement. “It confirms to government and to all developers proposing heavily polluting projects in environmentally sensitive areas in South Africa that exceptional circumstances must be shown to exist to justify that proposed development. South Africa is a water-stressed country, and the Mabola Protected Environment, where the coal mine would be located, has particular hydrological significance for the country as a whole. “The judgement also confirms the foundational principles of our law that went awry when the Ministers made their decisions to permit mining here. These are that no decision of this magnitude can be made unless a fair, proper and transparent decision making process has been followed.”   THE NEMPAA JUDGEMENT IS ATTACHED FOR DOWNLOAD.

Mabola NEMPAA Judgement 8 November 2018

Mabola NEMPAA Judgement 8 November 2018.   Document attached for download...

SA NEWS

Mintails placed into final liquidation

BUSINESS DAY Mintails placed into final liquidation Department of Mineral Resources will join long line of creditors hoping to recoup money 20 September 2018 - 17:27 Lisa Steyn

BUSINESS DAY EXCLUSIVE: Liquidation allows Mintails to shirk environmental liabilities

21 August 2018 - 05:04 Mark Olalde   Pollution: Water resource management consultant Anthony Turton, with the Mintails gold plants and water treatment tanks in the background. Picture: BUSINESS DAY/FREDDY MAVUNDA Mintails Mining and several related companies have announced their liquidation, throwing into question the environmental rehabilitation of highly polluting operations near Johannesburg. Mintails mines and processes gold from a sprawling 1,715ha complex of waste piles and open pits in Krugersdorp and has for years been flagged for noncompliance. Its operations are bordered by informal settlements and suburbs housing thousands of residents, many of whom have complained of health effects, which they blame on radioactive dust and water pollution from Mintails’ mines. Records show that the cost to clean up the environment would be about R330m, but there is only R25.6m available. Observers fear that the situation could deteriorate further, as happened at the Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine, an abandoned large-scale operation on the West Rand. A case study in the country’s deeply flawed mine closure system, Mintails teetered on the verge of collapse for years and entered business rescue in October 2015. Mariette Liefferink, the activist CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, tracked Mintails for more than a decade and is now working to intercede in the liquidation proceedings as the legal voice for what she labels the "mute environment". "There was poor planning. [Mintails’] due diligence was flawed. They overestimated the gold grade and the resource that could be reclaimed. "They continued to exploit the resource, to reclaim only the profitable parts and never top up the financial provisions," Liefferink says. As the company slips into liquidation, it passes the brunt of its environmental liability to taxpayers and, to an extent, to other mining companies. After Mintails fought for nearly three years to save the company, business rescue practitioner Dave Lake notified the Johannesburg high court in early August of his intention to liquidate the company. Provisional liquidation was granted on August 17 and a liquidator is expected to be appointed soon. THERE IS NO LONGER A REASONABLE PROSPECT OF RESCUING THE COMPANY. The business rescue plan called for the refurbishment of a gold ore processing plant but, according to a memo dated August 1 that Lake sent to the court and to affected parties, it failed when multiple investors ceased funding Mintails. "There is no longer a reasonable prospect of rescuing the company," the memo read. The liquidator will now decide how to pay back creditors with the remaining assets. Environmentalists fear this process could leave environmental liabilities low on the list of what deserves money. According to the business rescue plan, written in December 2016, Mintails owed various creditors more than R1bn, including a shortfall of about R300m in reclamation funding. Due to a web of involved companies, it remains unclear if a large portion of the already insufficient financial provisions can be accessed for environmental cleanup. DRDGold formerly held one of the mining rights and the corresponding trust fund, which are now in the Mintails group. DRDGold CEO Niël Pretorius says he believes that the trust fund contained R18m but he did not identify the trustees, whose consent is vital to unlocking the money. Documents show the Mintails group acknowledged that rehabilitation would probably cost between R300m and R336.5m, but it declined to top up financial provisions. According to the environmental management programme from one of Mintails’ mining rights: "These liabilities are also historic and predate Mintails’ involvement and should thus not be for Mintails’ account." Experts debate this narrow interpretation of the law. Lake wrote in the business rescue plan: "The Mintails group’s rehabilitation liabilities have remained largely unfunded for some time, and there are simply no free funds available to the [business rescue practitioner] to enable him to immediately provide such funding." Legal Resources Centre attorney Lucien Limacher is representing the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. "This is a trend that has been occurring for a couple of years where mining companies have undertaken a business rescue plan or have applied for liquidation because they have failed to really look after the rehabilitation fund," he says. The Legal Resources Centre sent letters to several government agencies, including the department of mineral resources, the department of water & sanitation and the department of energy, asking them to intervene in the situation and threatening to pursue legal action if the department of mineral resources fails to act. Department of water & sanitation spokesperson Sputnik Ratau says they are "engaging Mintails so that the immediate measures can be put into place to ensure water resources protection. A longer-term plan is required to ensure rehabilitation of the mining-impacted areas." Lake declines to answer questions about the failed business rescue and the liquidation but he wrote for Moneyweb in January 2017 and laid out his argument for Mintails’ use of business rescue: "Mintails was sick – but it wasn’t terminal." Now the situation has become what Liefferink calls "pass the parcel", with Mintails playing the part of a "scavenger company", a term coined by researchers to describe under-resourced outfits that buy the scraps left over from larger mining companies and ultimately abandon them. Large gold, coal and platinum mines rarely, if ever, properly close in SA and there wasn’t one large-scale mine in Gauteng that achieved full, legal closure between 2011 and 2016. Mintails’ case will not affect the law that ring-fences financial assurances for reclamation, Limacher says. "But it is precedent-setting in that mines might now start applying for liquidation to avoid paying the cost of rehabilitation." Mintails’ West Rand concessions came in part from DRDGold, which also remines waste piles, and from Mogale Gold, which was in judicial management when Mintails acquired it in 2006. Since then, Mintails engaged in a pattern of environmental degradation. For example, the department of water & sanitation found in an August 2014 inspection that Mintails transported "slurry/sludge" in unlined trenches, completed insufficient monitoring, spilled slurry from pipelines and implemented no storm water management system at a pollution control dam. In December 2016, polluted runoff from waste piles was found to be seeping through a dam wall into the Wonderfonteinspruit, which has immediate downstream agricultural uses in the community of Kagiso. Now it will largely be up to the liquidator and regulators to protect the environment and public health. "That is the pattern that seems to be followed in the gold mining industry, and, I assume, would be followed in the coal and platinum mining industries, as well. "As soon as a mine is no longer very profitable, it transfers its assets," Liefferink says. "That seems to have the tacit support of the department of mineral resources." However, the department of mineral resources sent a statement that reads: "The department will engage with the appointed provisional liquidators with the intention to safeguard the environmental and social responsibilities." Mintails former CEO Johan Moolman declined to comment except to say he quit on June 26 when he learned a new investor had bought the company. Mvest Capital agreed to purchase Mintails from Paige, a vehicle of the UK-based Harbour family, with the understanding that Mvest would inject R30m into the beleaguered company to stimulate the business rescue plan. Mvest decided against handing over the full amount, paying only R5.5m. Mvest director Matthew Moodley acknowledges the initial agreement and the R5.5m. He says that after a month it became apparent the deal would require more investment to succeed. "With the increased need for working capital in July, Mvest took a decision to withdraw from the transaction," Moodley says, adding that Mvest did not "conclude a transaction with Paige". Liefferink says these companies are all "jumping from a sinking ship". She fears Mintails will go the way of the abandoned Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine, which was once one of the country’s most productive gold operations and is now a source of pollution, violent illegal mining gangs and headaches for adjacent mines. Mintails has followed a strikingly similar pattern. In the Blyvooruitzicht case, two companies, DRDGold and Village Main Reef, almost completed a business deal to sell the nearly exhausted mine and both walked away, claiming the other carried responsibility. "That whole area, just like Blyvooruitzicht, will be left like it is," Liefferink said. While neighbouring mining companies will probably have to pump water from the void in Mintails’ absence, the consequences of "the dust fallout and the toxic water in the river systems" will be carried by communities and by the municipality. oxpeckers.org Additional reporting by #MineAlert manager Tholakele Nene https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/companies/mining/2018-08-21-liquidation-allows-mintails-to-shirk-environmental-liabilities/

WATER

Pollution of the Vaal

THE FSE PRESENTED ON INVITATION TO THE SOUTH AFRICAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISION ON THE POLLUTION OF THE VAAL.  ATTACHED ARE THE PRESENTATIONS.

Water Crisis

More than two decades ago, science advocate IsmailMore than two decades ago, sci...

SUMMARY OF WATER RELATED CHALLENGES IN SOUTH AFRICA 2018

SUMMARY OF WATER RELATED CHALLENGES IN SOUTH AFRICA 2018 INTRODUCTION This su...