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Re-Mining could mean double the toxic trouble for residents Featured

Sunday, 23 February 2014 11:22
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Living in the shadow of the old mine dumps, the dust is forever unsettling

Bridget Mathebula is smiling – there’s hardly a breath of wind in the air. Today is a good day to be a farmer in Snake Park.

No wind means no toxic dust swirling off the ghostly mine dump that looms like a sore over the improvised vegetable farm she runs with her elderly father in the informal settlement.

Proudly, she shows off the mealies, spinach and cabbages sprouting from the tainted earth, contaminated by potentially dangerous mine tailings that contain high levels of uranium and radionuclides from decades of mining activity.

“The mealies are covered with many layers, so I don’t think they can make us sick”, she insists.   “We wash the cabbages and spinach very well with warm water before we cook them”

But Mathebula fears enough to keep her 2 year old son, Lwandle, at home as the dust storms rage across Snake Park and the family’s farm from the unrehabilitated dump.   Her father, Thomas, covers his mouth with a wet cloth and his eyes with glasses as he farms.

What matters more, says Mathebula, is that the family always has something to eat now.

“We may live in a shack, but because we have food, we are not poor. When there’s no meat, there’s always vegetables to eat and if there are spares, we sell them to the community, R3 for 10 mealies.”

“It is only when one of them gets sick that they will know how bad this mining waste is for them”, offers a scrawny Israel Mosala, an environmental activist who educates Sowetans about the hazards of mining waste.

“But I can’t blame them for their ignorance. People know these mine dumps make them sick, but they are more concerned about getting that slice of bread, about their survival.”

Mosala grew up in nearby Meadowlands, in the shadow of mine dumps, and for him, battling pollution is a fight that never ends. He has a new battle on his hands: Ergo Mining – the operating company for DRD Gold – has applied for a mining rights application to remine the Soweto cluster of mine dumps in Roodepoort. It wants to break down the old dumps that encircle Soweto, to scour them for precious gold, silver, nickel and uranium.

As much as he would like to see the dumps that blight Soweto disappear, Mosala worries about reprocessing them.   “It could go from bad to worse’, says Mosala, a volunteer at Earthlife Africa Joburg, clad in a T-shirt that declares “no to nukes”.

“We’re already covered in mine dust that makes people sick and destroys ecosystems. They (Ergo) have told us they will be using a wet system to make sure the dump stays wet and there is no dust fallout. All I know is when there is the wind, the dust will blow into our houses.

“This re-mining will cause extensive damage to an already damaged environment”, he believes.   “There will be more dust for many years, more water pollution and more noise from their operations.

In Soweto, some mine dumps are rehabilitated and covered with a thin layer of vegetation – many others are left barren wastelands behind severe dust storms.

A 2010 study that measured dust exposure in Soweto found that in its north-eastern reaches, residents faced the equivalent of 106 eight-hour shifts a year in a workplace that would expose them to easily inhalable hyperfine dust, but without protective gear stipulated on mines.

Traditionally, concludes the study, mine dumps were “regarded as a nuisance”, but have now become “recognised potential health hazards”.

Most residents are in the dark about the Ergo application, claims Mosala, who questions the timing and location of a community meeting held by Ergo last week.   Only a handful of residents turned up at the meeting held by Digby Wells, which is conducting Ergo’s environmental impact assessment.

“They had their meeting at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort in the middle of the work day. How could most people get there from Soweto? We don’t have transport money.

“These companies promise they will have all these specialist studies into air quality, wetlands, social impacts and fauna and flora, but they don’t mean anything.   The environment is still left polluted when they leave.”

To highlight this, Mosala points to a stream of rust-coloured toxic acid mine drainage (AMD), flowing unhindered through a field in Meadowlands, where it ultimately will join the blighted Klip River. AMD refers to the seepage of polluted water, loaded with heavy metals, sulphates and potentially radioactive, pouring from old mining areas.

“This has been here since I was a young man.   I’m in my fifties now and it’s still here. Children swim here, livestock drink this water – we eat that meat – and people use it for religious ceremonies, Now, if the re-mine, this AMD could worsen.”

Mosala is frustrated. He has brought professors, academics and government officials to this poisoned stream and has attended countless seminars and think-tanks on mining waste in recent years. “They all jot down their notes, but nothing changes. It’s devastating.”

Environmental lobby groups like the Federation for a Sustainable Environment believe Ergo’s application should only be approved if the entire residue deposits and the remaining footprints are removed.

“If this is not the case, rather than consolidating contaminated sites, the reprocessing activities could result in the creation of two contaminated sites, where one previously existed.

“The remining of the uraniferous Soweto cluster can contaminate air, water and soil”, it points out. “The chemical toxicity of the metal constitutes the primary environmental health hazard, with the radioactivity of uranium a secondary concern.   The reclamation process could exacerbate AMD pollution through the mobilisation of metals and sand dump materials in the presence of air and water.”

Tiny Dlamini, a resident of Snake Park, gestures to her swollen, red eyes. “This is what this mine dump does to me. But it’s worse for others – people die here because of this dust, it causes TB and asthma.

“Come here in August, you won’t even be able to see someone across the road. That’s how bad it is.”

‘Reclamation is rehabilitation’

The reclamation of Soweto’s mine dumps is a form of rehabilitation, insists Ergo, the operating company for DRD Gold.“It should also be noted that reclamation of the dumps is itself a form of rehabilitation, as by re-mining them, they – and any associated problems – are removed completely”, spokeswoman Leigh King said. There was no valid mining or exploration rights over the dumps in the Soweto cluster. “And neither DRD, nor Ergo, its operating company, have any responsibility for these dumps at this time”, she said.

“The Ergo operational team works continuously to manage and contain dust, water and effluent at its operations, and to ensure that reclamation causes no undue nuisance to the various stakeholders.”

The company’s responsibility would only begin when its mining right application to reclaim the dumps had been approved by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR).

“The DMR will only approve the application if it is satisfied with the environmental management programme that is submitted.”

But the Federation for a Sustainable Environment points out that DRD Gold has a “historical record of unsustainable mining.” – Sheree Bega

Report exposes mining’s high cost

Extractive industries in oil, gas and mining have long been recognised as some of the most damaging to the environment, health and livelihoods, according to medical journal, the Lancet.

Its report published last week, notes how mining causes high occupational mortality.

“Accidental poisonings and exposure to toxins across industries kill 355 000 people annually with developing countries accounting for two-third of exposure-associated deaths’, said the report.

It also notes: “The costs of extractive industry activity are not borne only by workers, but communities and environments.

“In the case of mining, toxic contaminants such as arsenic, heavy metals, acids and alkalis can be discarded into the environment, ending up in water, soil and the food chain.

“Through industrial activities in agriculture and manufacturing, harmful pollutants can bereleased directly into the environment.”

Next month, the People’s Health Movement will discuss its implications for gold-mining communities at a Joburg meeting.

The report states: ‘Although the health sector has a crucial role in addressing inequalities, its efforts come into conflict with powerful global actors in pursuit of other interests such as protection of national security, safeguarding of sovereignty or economic goals”.   Sheree Bega.

CURRENT RE-MINING ACTIVITIES

The following photographs were taken of Mintails’, AngloGold Ashanti’s Mine Waste Solutions’ operations and DRD Golds’ Blyvooruitzicht Mine’s reclamation activities by the FSE’s affiliates and members

 

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Unrehabiliated footprints

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SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. 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"Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. 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It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

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