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Midalore left to choke on toxic dust

Tuesday, 07 April 2015 16:46
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Residents long for wind of change, but all they get is illness every time a hazardous cocktail blows into town.

MARY Roets cradles her whimpering grandson in her arms like a baby. Every few minutes, little Divan's body jerks as he is overcome by another coughing fit.

It got so bad a few moments earlier that he vomited all over Roets's lounge floor. Her blue-eyed grandchild is sick again, and she blames the clouds of toxic dust that Swirl from her unwanted neighbour: a barren mine dump that looms over the neat suburb of Mindalore, nestled in the hea1t of Krugersdorp, like a threat.

Just a few weeks ago, Divan was booked off school, with a severe bout of sinus. It was the same the month before. "Oh, it's horrible - what all tl1is dust is doing to us," says Roets, speaking quietly, as she looks at the dump across the road.

"Divan has constant sinus. He suffers from nosebleeds. His eyes are always red and irritated. By May, the family's medical aid has run out. It's not just Divan. We are all so sick all the time."

The 51-year-old has lived in Mindalore for more than 30 years, in the shadow of this mine dump that is now being re-mined to make bricks for homes.

Last year, mining rehabilitation outfit Mintails sta1ted its own opencast mine alongside the mine dump, or tailings, as tl1ey're also called. "The pollution became even worse," remarks Roets.

As soon as there's the merest whisper of wind, Roets puts on a surgical mask to protect herself. She has to do this. Her doctors have warned her that she risks sinus cancer because she is particularly sensitive to mining dust, which is conta111inated witl1 heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic and mercury, and is potentially radioactive. "When that dust blows, my voice goes," she says, her voice, faint and raspy. "You just close all your doors, windows and shut up. And when the sinus starts, goodness, it feels like someone has pm1ched me in the jaw, like there are needles in my mouth. I get ear infections, too.

"The doctor has told me that because of the constant sinus drip, there's a sore on my vocal chords, it has started to bleed and this can cause me to lose my voice." Her doctors have also advised her to move out of the blighted area. But she doesn't know where to go. She has lived here for most of her life and argues that the dumps - not her family - should go.

"But living here, you have to wash your clothes four times and scrape the mine dust from your tables and your cupboards. It's like sand in your hand ... in your mouth."

Staring at the unwelcome dump across the road, Trudy Fortuin, her friend and neighbour, agrees. The 44-year-old, who works from home, has lived in Mindalore for more than 11 years. Her young children also have continual respiratory infections and nosebleeds, as she does.

"When I cough, I can actually taste the blood in my mouth ... At times you can't even see, that's how bad it is. You have to put your headlights on there's so much dust on windy days. The dust covers everything in my house.

"And all this pollution has been exacerbated because of these companies using these dumps and starting to mine here again. Our children have nosebleeds more often, they’re sitting with sinus problems more often, as we are. It's worse for us because we are home all day."

More than 120 years of gold mining on the West Rand have created a dangerous legacy: contaminated water resources and wind-blown dust from the numerous tailings dams in the region.

Because the gold ores are uraniferous, the worry is that the dust from these dumps is not only chemically toxic but potentially radioactive.

Environmental activist Mariette Liefferink points out that 42 tons of tailings dust a day billow over the West Rand, with traces being found as far afield as Tasmania.

Even local authorities have noted that the incidence of respiratory illnesses in the region is exceptionally high, and they term the dust fallout from mine dumps a particular health hazard.

Last year, Carl Albrecht, the head of researcl1 at the Cancer Association of South Africa, collected and chemically analysed mine dust samples from Mindalore and nearby suburbs.

"I found the dumps contained varying amounts of uranium, but what this means in terms of health I do not know," he says, adding that he is a "one-man team" operating on a "shoestring budget".

"(The potential health effects) should be ascertained by the government and the mines. It will probably cost about R1O million to R20m to get reliable answers."

When uranium gets inside the body, it can lead to liver damage, kidney problems and cancer.

Michael Harris, another Mindalore resident, believes the results of the uranium samples, analysed by Wits University last year were explosive.

"There are some seriously high concentrations of uranimn in many of the samples," says HatTis. "In the top 10 were Riverlea, Mindalore, Lewisham and Soweto."

Harris believes there is anecdotal evidence of "abnormally high cancer rates" in the area.

Dolf Schneider says Lewisham, where he lives and which flanks Mindalore, also feels the brunt.

"When the wind blows, we see this white blanket of mine dust, and it affects us. My child, who is 6, starts to get nosebleeds."

Liefferink says that an epidemiological study of the health effects of mine tailings dust is long overdue.

"It (raises) the question why, after more than 130 years of gold mining, an epidemiological study has not been conducted."

But it's not only a mining legacy issue.

Companies like Mintails, says Harris, have "more than doubled the hazardous dust problem" in Mindalore.

Residents complain that they were not properly notified about Mintails' activities.

"One day, we had people coming to inspect our houses to see if there were cracks that would be affected by their blasting," Fortuin says.

"They told us they would not mine during the night and there would be a cut-off time. That was a lie. They started mining through the night."

Several months ago, Mintails notified residents it would complete its rehabilitation efforts by the end of last month. But its unfenced open-cast mine remains.

Eddie Milne, the chief executive of Mintails, says: "We do recognise that some remediation works needs to be completed to the relevant areas of our operations and this is scheduled to start as soon as we move into the dty season."

Rehabilitation during the wet season "does create difficulty (with) equipment and impacts on mine health and safety".

His company cannot be responsible for the dust fallout, Milne claims. Although it undertook rehabilitation mining in the area, it stopped four months ago. "Our operations were focused on hard-rock mining and not tailings."

Milne says Mintails, which is rehabilitating tailings across the West Rand and running open-cast operations, is far  from being the largest contributor to dust problems.

"The placement of tailings on surface is a legacy issue and should not be confused with the impact that Mintails is having on the environment. Mintails is, in fact, addressing the legacy issues for the betterment of society. Without the action that Mintails takes, the dust would be worse.

"The removal of multiple tailings dumps as well as the consolidation, rehabilitation and closing of these dumps permanently will, over time, improve the mpact of dust and other pollutants," he says.

But Liefferink says companies like Mintails worsen pollution on the West Rand because rehabilitation has not been completed at several sites, including nearby Kagiso and Boltonia.

"Mintails is not only remining the dumps, it has created new contaminated sites, like in Mindalore."

Remining removes the vegetation and the crust of the tailings dams, liberating the mine dust, Liefferink says.

Wessel Geldenhuys, who runs a clay brickmaking fir m that witl1 another brickmaker is remining Mindalore's dump to make bricks, concedes the dust fallout may have become worse.

"Maybe it's true that by removing the dump we are creating a little more dust, but in six to eight months, thatt dump will be gone and the area will be rehabilitated. That dump has been there for a 100 years."

Geldenhuys's fmu uses a small portion of the mine tailings to make bricks.

"It is a bit radioactive, but so is the granite in our kitchens."

Fortuin says she and her husband have spent thousands of rand fixing up their home.

"We could never get our money back. Who would want to buy here? "We tell ourselves not to expose this mining pollution so we can sell our houses, but what about the health of the people who buy here?"

Roets is in the same boat as Fortuin.

She lifts her bedroom carpet to show a thick layer of mine dust on the floor. "This was tested and was high in uranium. It's scary. Every year we have to replace our window fittings because they have disintegrated. Imagine what's happening inside our bodies," she says.

Read 16779 times Last modified on Thursday, 05 November 2015 16:11


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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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