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Big Increase in Mine Water Pollution

Monday, 27 May 2019 10:00
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Big increase in mine water pollution

Mark Olalde | Andiswa Matikinca |Mail & Guardian | 17 May 2019 00:00

Unchecked: Mining companies accused of failing to comply with environmental regulations say that the water department is disorganised and understaffed. (Madelene Cronjé)

 

New statistics released in Parliament show that 118 mines around South Africa are polluting rivers, inadequately testing for contamination or otherwise dirtying South Africa’s waterways.

The figures, released by the minister of water and sanitation, Gugile Nkwinti, also show that 115 mines are known to be operating without proper water permits. This represents a significant increase from 2014, when the South African Human Rights Commission found 39 mines to be noncompliant.

Violators are spread across every province and include major corporations such as AngloGold Ashanti, De Beers, Glencore and Anglo American Platinum.

In response to parliamentary questions posed by Freedom Front Plus MP Anton Alberts, the minister released the data, compiled by the department, in April.

It showed that during the past financial year, more than 15% of the 712 mines licensed to use or to have an effect on water sources had failed to comply with the water-use licences that stipulate the conditions of that usage.

Asked what steps would be taken to address the deficiencies, Nkwinti responded: “It is not clear why transgressors resort to operation of mines without the requisite authorisation; however, the department continues to intensify activities to protect the water resources, as mandated by the National Water Act.”

Alberts told Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism that he had referred the list of transgressions, which covers the years 2015 to 2018, to the department’s Blue Scorpions regulatory unit. This is the group tasked with finding people who break water law, and fining them.

“Even though mines are a part of our economy, we need to find a balance between just getting the profits out of the ground and leaving nature spoiled and people who live there becoming sick,” said Alberts.

The data covers a wide range of permit violations: polluted water discharged directly into the environment, waste piles contaminating groundwater, unlined wastewater retention ponds, oil spills, insufficient monitoring, excessive dewatering of the underground void and poor record-keeping.

As climate change continues to worsen South Africa’s water security, the mining industry’s number of water-related infractions is rising. 

 

In 2017-2018, the department found 10 more mines significantly out of compliance with their water-use permits than the year before, and 38 more than in 2015-2016.

Much of the mining negatively affecting water is in the coalfields of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, which ranked first and second, respectively, in the number of mines out of compliance with their water-use licences.

Saul Roux, a science and policy specialist at the nonprofit legal group Centre for Environmental Rights, said acid mine drainage poses mining’s most significant threat to clean water resources. Coal mining on the Highveld overlaps with large portions of the country’s 22 designated strategic water-source areas, which provide 60% of all South Africans with water, he said. “Our scarce water resources are affected throughout the coal life cycle, including direct effects on water quality during coal mining, effects of air pollutants on water resources and coal ash contamination of groundwater,” Roux said.

But companies’ responses to questions about the data highlighted the disorganisation in the government bureaucracy meant to police them. In recent years, the department has had only 35 compliance and enforcement officials to cover the entire country. This is according to a report by the South African Water Caucus, a group of nongovernmental organisations and trade unions set up to study water use.

The data listed elevated levels of pollutants at Glencore’s Mpumalanga mines, for example, but company spokesperson Lerato Setsiba said the department had not informed the company of the infraction.

“Glencore has an extensive water-monitoring network on all sites where water qualities are measured every month and investigations are conducted on any exceedance of water quality,” Setsiba said in a statement.

Other major mining companies also defended their infractions.

Anglo American Platinum’s spokesperson, Jana Marais, responded to the findings that several of its mines, including the Twickenham Platinum Mine in Mpumalanga, discharged polluted water. She said the company was spending millions of rand on upgrading water infrastructure at the mine and that an external audit had found higher compliance with water permits than the department found.

Chris Nthite, AngloGold’s representative, said the company was aware of the listed violations — which included waste spillages, stormwater management issues and unauthorised water use — and had addressed them. “[AngloGold] has offered measures to remedy any problem, or has not been contacted further.”

The department’s spokesperson, Sputnik Ratau, did not respond to requests for comment on why the department allowed mining companies to continue operating with outstanding infractions.

Neither did the department of mineral resources. Its spokesperson, Ayanda Shezi, instead referred questions about potential inter-agency co-operation in the policing of mining companies back to the water department.

With water pollution continuing largely unchecked, environmental activists have taken to the courts to protect water resources in both the coalfields and gold-mining basins.

Mariette Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said her group is in the process of filing litigation against the ministers of water and sanitation and of mineral resources, among other parties, for their role in the environmental catastrophe unfolding at the Mintails SA gold mines on the West Rand.

A parliamentary inquiry revealed late last year that the government allowed mining to continue at Mintails after mine waste spilt into waterways and children had drowned in open mining pits.

This inquiry also revealed that the company’s liabilities ran to R460-million — that is the amount of money the company would require to repair all the damage to the environment.

In the 2015-2016 period, Mintails complied with less than a quarter of its water-use licence requirements, according to the data released in Parliament.

With the company liquidated, mining at the operations near Krugersdorp have largely halted and any proceeds are flowing back to investors in London.

“There is a significant lack of political will, which means polluters can continue with impunity to ignore directives,” Liefferink said. — oxpeckers.org

This report was sponsored by #MineAlert and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

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