In a possible first for SA, a mining company, a director, and some of its senior staff face criminal charges for contravening several environmental laws, two environmental organisations said yesterday. They face collective fines of up to R18,6m.
The action marks the end of an era for mining companies in SA, after decades of not being brought to book for environmental degradation. More prosecutions are expected to follow.
Six people, including Anker Coal and Mineral Holdings director Albrecht Frick, have been summonsed to appear in two separate prosecutions before an Ermelo Regional Court magistrate on March 10.
In the first action, nine charges relate to coal prospecting on a Mpumalanga farm between January 2009 and April last year.
In the second case, 16 charges relate to opencast coal mining between March 2009 and August last year.
“It is the first case in Mpumalanga and in SA.. Our argument is that for as long as a company gets away with not paying (for contravening environmental laws), they are being rewarded for criminal activity,” said Federation for a Sustainable Environment director Koos Pretorius.
Mr Frick said he had no comment regarding the summons .
Mr Pretorius said mining companies had been “living as if nothing has changed since the 1980s” despite the promulgation of the Minerals Act in 1991 – the state’s first attempt to mitigate mining’s effect on the environment – and the ratification of the constitution in 1996, which established sustainable development as a constitutional right.
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu’s spokesman Musa Zondi said the six-month moratorium on receiving new mining applications, due to be lifted next month, would still be in force in Mpumalanga because there were “areas of great concern” in the province .
Bheki Khumalo, spokesman for the department, said it would not wait for the end of the court case before taking “decisive action” against Anker Coal and its staff. First, the department would study the National Prosecuting Authority’s docket, and send inspectors to the mine. If transgressions were found, the mine’s mining rights could be suspended or even cancelled, although this could not be done without hearing evidence from Anker Coal.
Department officials found to have been negligent would also be dealt with in accordance with public service regulations.
Centre for Environmental Rights executive director Melissa Fourie said it was “unfortunate” the two prosecutions came about through the actions of affected parties instead of the departments responsible for implementing the National Environmental Management Act, the National Water Act and environmental provisions in the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act.
“There is little point in having a regulatory system if there is ineffective or absent compliance monitoring and enforcement of regulations. Relying on ‘self- regulation’ by mines, as had been the case for a very long time in this country, has resulted in environmental disasters like acid mine drainage,” she said.