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Trapped in a nightmare of hazardous dust

Thursday, 06 November 2014 19:48
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Residents on edge as miner mulls reopening pit


Rakgadi Mashegoane pulls her 8-year-old son, Oratile, close to her and inspects his eyes. They look red and slightly swollen. And his coughing fits are keeping her up at night.
Her other son, who has just turned 18 has been diagnosed with asthma.
She looks worried as she sits on a frayed couch inside her crumbling RDP home, which is buttressed against a towering mine dump in Singobile on the desolate outskirts of Kagiso.
The unemployed Mashegoane blames this unwanted neighbor - and the collection of mine dumps encricling her home - for her family's illnesses.
"We are inhaling mine dust 24 hours a day, especially when there is wind. We get headaches and our children cough all the time. Our kids are in and out of hospital because of all this dust."
For the past eight years, she has lived in the shadow of the mine dump, which juts like a barren mountain over the squat homes of Singobile.
Mashegoane, who lost her job at the Post Office earlier this year, wishes she could move. "I have no money, nothing," she says gesturing to the shacks being erected in her yard to supplement her meager income. "We are stuck here."
Mning company Mintails plans to re-mine the hazardous mine dump and others it owns that loom Krugersdorp and West Rand. It is breaking down the old dumps, scouring them for valuable gold, silver, nickel and uranium.
But re-mining presents its own problems, warns Mariette Liefferink, the head of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. "Re-mining can contaminate are, water and soil. When you remove the dump you are also removing the vegetation and the crust, and it liberates the dust. Then people ingest that dust."
Liefferink says Mintails reclamation of historical tailings dumps is "exacerbating water and airborne pollution, particularly windblown toxic and potentially radioactive dust fallout."
Mashegoane believes the pollution was worse when Mintails started its open cast mine, Princess Pit, opposite Singobile last year - until violent protests by the community, a court order and intervention by then mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu - temporarily suspended mining operations.
Residents complained blasting had caused cracks in their homes. Mintails attributes the damage to hailstorms and to the company's alleges pollution and poor consultation.
"They were blasting three times a day - all you heard were explosions," says Mashegoane, showing a crack that runs across her wall. "It doesn’t help to renovate if they are going to start mining here again. We don't know," she shrugs.
In nearby Mindalore, residents complain too complain of blocked sinuses and nosebleeds from mining durst. "There's so much dust, sometimes it looks like mist where Mintails is operating," remarks Matilda du Toit, who complains her house is coated in it.
Annemarie le Roux, another resident, worries about the health consequences of mining activities in the white-collar suburb. "We leave for work in others areas, but our kids and grandchildren are in pre-schools and schools inhaling this rubbish all day ling.
"What is the future of the health for these kids?"
Located alongside Singobile, the continued occupation of the informal settlement of Tudor Shaft stands like an indictment to authorities. Build in mining waste and home to several thousand people, it is so toxic and radioactive that several government agencies have recommended the community be urgently relocated.
But nothing happened. Across the road, Mintails' Princess Pit runs like a scar to Singobile. "These mining companies makes holes in the earth, make us sick, then they leave," says Lucas Misapitso, a mechanical engineering student, who is trying to raise money to take his fellow Tudor Shaft resident to parliament to talk about the dangers lurking in Tudor Shaft. "This is a human rights violation."
And always, it's the poorest of the poor that pay the price, adds Liefferink.
"The challenge for Mintails is to be able to demonstrate that the West Rand is a better place across all three sustainability measures - social, environmental and economic - rather than a worse one because of its activities. The view is that Mintails is not cleaning up the historical and current mess and minimising its mining footprint."
Communities like those in Singobile, Tudor Shaft and Soul City represent a fraction of the 1.6 million residents living on radioactive mine residue within the Witwatersrand goldfields.
"They are suffering the impact of the legacy of largely unregulated gold mining within the West Rand goldfields and from the accumulated impact of the massive open cast mining operation by companies like Mintails."
Mmthabo Mphago, who lives opposite Mintails' Princess Pit, tells of her weekly, and sometimes daily, visits to the clinic. "The dust from all these dumps is too terrible for our children. They are coughing all the time. All the children in Singobile have red eyes and asthma.
Chali Mohale, another resident in Singobile, promises one things. "If Mintails does start re-mining Princess Pit, we will mobilise the community and we'll have to close their operations down forcefully."

Mintails Responds

Mintails Mining is the owners of a significant number of historic tailing facilities in and around the West Rand and Krugersdorp area, but what residents and other parties don't always realise is that we not the only owner of tailings facilities. It should be noted that Mintails is far from being the largest contributor to dust on the West Rand".
Its collective tailings ownership does not reach the amount of Gold 1's Millsite tailings dump complex that contains "120 million tons of tailings".
That is the largest tailing dump at the edge of Randfontein and "at the start of the general wind direction towards the resident of Randfontein, Soul City, Tudor and Mindalore", says Mintails." The volume of dust is coming off the dump is so great it is sometimes visible from Lanseria and much of the West Rand."
Mining pollution is a "legacy issue", which the mining companies operating g on the West Rand "and with the relevant expertise to still extract value out of these dumps, have to live with every day".
Mintails tracks dust and its pollutants, and measures the effects of dust fallout every month.
"Most tailings facilities are covered and semi-rehabilitated, which limits the durst coming off these dumps. When re-mining takes place, the overburden and organics are removed from the dumps which does expose them to a higher potential of releasing dust. Mintails mines only one dump at a time and as such, the volume of dust coming off the dumps is limited to having only one exposed at a time."
In addition, water is sprayed on to dumps to suppress dust fallout, it adds.
Its mining operations continue to meet the requirements of regulators and dust fall-out levels are below the required limits. The removal of multiple tailings dumps as well as the consolidation, rehabilitation and closing of these dumps permanently will, over time, improve the impact of dust and other pollutants into the environment.
"Tailings will remain a legacy issue as long as the current regulation continues to recognise these facilities as resources and not as waste stockpiles. Once a dump has been re-mined, there is very little economic value left in the tailings and, as such, should be recognised as a waste product for which the closure plan can be implemented to deal with these re-mined tailings in a permanent manner."

 

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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. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "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. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". 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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