In a first for SA, a mining company has pleaded guilty to breaking environmental laws while prospecting for coal in a protected wetland — in return for a relatively light penalty.
The Mpumalanga-based mining company pleaded guilty to contravening various parts of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema). This is the first time a mining company has been found guilty of breaking environmental laws.
But the fines handed to Anker Coal and Mineral Holdings are a fraction of the maximum penalty: a light sentence the judge said was merited by the company’s cooperation with the investigation, willingness to admit culpability and for showing remorse.
In the landmark case the company, along with its managing director, on Monday pleaded guilty in the Ermelo Regional Court of contravening three parts of the Act.
They also pleaded guilty to contravening parts of the National Water Act and the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act.
The charges related to drilling that happened in the course of coal prospecting on Steenkoolspruit farm near Amsterdam in Mpumalanga in 2009.
They included: drilling a borehole within 10m of the banks of the Usutu River; failing to fill and cap the boreholes properly; drilling in a wetland; leaving the core drillings lying in the veld; and failing to comply with a notice issued by the regional manager for the department of mineral resources to immediately rectify and rehabilitate the area.
When the charges were filed, the charge sheet said a guilty verdict could bring with it financial penalties exceeding R6.6-million and prison sentences of more than 25 years.
In reading the sentence the judge noted that Anker Coal had undertaken “extensive negotiations and discussions” with the authorities over the charges.
By pleading guilty and “showing remorse”, it had dramatically reduced the length of time needed for the trial and helped the state. Also, “no major environmental damage” had been caused by the drilling, said the judge.
However, the judge noted, “the protection of our wetlands and other water resources is of national importance for present and future generations”.
Fine and mild
Three fines, totalling R180 000 were suspended by the judge for five years on various conditions. A further R80 000 was to be paid to the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency.
The owner of Steenkoolspruit farm, Dr Collin Forbes, would also have to be given R144 000 in compensation.
In response to the finding, the minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa, said the plea and sentence were a “victory for the protection of our wetlands and other water resources for present and future generations”. She also said it sends a clear message that “environmental degradation will not be tolerated”.
Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said the case had established a legal precedent for the protection of environmental rights.
At the time that the charges were laid, Melissa Fourie, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights said: “There is little point in having a regulatory system if there is ineffective or absent compliance monitoring and enforcement of regulations.”
The managing director of Anker Coal, Albert Frick, was not immediately available for comment