Truth of the dust that brings death

A new hard-hitting report from Harvard Law School details how South Africa has failed to meet its human rights obligations concerning gold mining in and around Joburg. Bonnie Docherty, who led the research, spoke to Sheree Bega

Johannesburg – Great riches and high risks. That’s the story of gold mining on the Witwatersrand, where the sparkle of the gold rush led to a boom that would give rise to Joburg, turning it into one of the most powerful cities on the continent. But the hunt for gold would also irrevocably alter our socio-political and natural landscape.

South Africa should adopt a programme that both mitigates the effects of mining and helps the country meet its responsibilities under domestic, international and regional human rights law, a report says. File picture: Itumeleng English. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

“Since its earliest days, the industry has endangered the environment and health of people,” explains Docherty, a senior clinical instructor at the international human rights clinic at Harvard Law School. While mining has played an integral part in economic growth for more than a century, it has disempowered communities of the West and Central Rand, which make up a large part of the mining belt, she says.

Docherty is the leading author of The Cost of Gold: Environmental, Health and Human Rights Consequences of Gold Mining in South Africa’s West and Central Rand, which, for the first time, documents the dangerous fallout of water, air and soil pollution from mining “through a human rights lens”.

“I was particularly moved by the experiences of the residents of the Bekkersdal informal settlement. I watched them wash clothes, water livestock and play in water that contained toxic and radioactive contaminants, including uranium. Although such contamination is not visible, it has the potential to cause serious, long-term health effects,” she says.

South Africa has not fully complied with its own constitutional or international law.

“The government has not only inadequately mitigated the harm from abandoned and active mines, but it has also offered scant warnings of the risks,” the report says, “(and) despite some signs of progress, the government’s response to the crisis has been insufficient and unacceptably slow.”

There’s growing momentum to argue the human rights case. Last week, in a joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council, local civil-society organisations wrote to the UN Human Rights Council about how poorly regulated mining and coal-fired power generation are to blame for air and water pollution, destruction of arable land and biodiversity loss.

“Despite the human rights harms of mining and of coal-burning, the government allows excessive pollution to continue,” the civil groups say.

Gold mining and environmental harm

For more than a century, gold mining has released highly toxic contaminants into the environment, raising concerns under several economic, social and cultural rights.

Acid mine drainage (AMD), a toxic by-product, has polluted water bodies that residents use to irrigate crops, water livestock, wash clothes and swim in.

“Community members have indirectly ingested AMD, especially by eating vegetables irrigated with the polluted water, meat from cattle that have drunk from local waterways and fish from contaminated bodies of water. Local people have also been exposed through skin contact that has happened when they have washed clothes or swum in tainted lakes and streams,” the report warns.

“Studies done in other parts of the world have documented long-term health impacts, such as cancer and organ damage, from the same contaminants.”

But although AMD reached the surface of the West Rand in 2002, the government waited 10 years before establishing a plant that could stem its flow. Its short-term treatment plants have fallen short of a complete solution because they have only neutralised water, leaving high concentrations of sulphates that can cause acute health effects and make water unsuitable.

Desalination, “a more thorough treatment process”, is needed, “but its success depends on the government implementing it effectively and in a timely manner”, continues the report.

Too little too has been done to address other major sources of AMD, such as rainwater run-off and underground seepage from mine waste sites. In addition, locals have been unable to escape the health effects posed by Joburg’s more than 200 tailings dams, or “hills of waste”.

“Like AMD, they contain elevated concentrations of heavy metals, including radioactive uranium. Contaminated dust has filled the air and blanketed communities, leading to widespread complaints of asthma and other breathing difficulties.”

Yet the government has left it up to the mining industry to determine how to remove the waste dumps. The location of many settlements “near or on top of the tailings dams” has endangered residents, says Docherty, whose report cites how residents of at least 10 mining communities in the West and Central Rand blame this dust for causing breathing difficulties, chronic coughs and sinusitus.

The state has failed mining communities

The government has a legal obligation to guarantee human rights, yet its delayed response and piecemeal approach falls short of South Africa’s duties under human rights law.

“As a result, the impacts of mining continue to infringe on residents’ rights, as well as those to receive information and participate in decision-making,” Docherty says.

The government, together with the mining industry, has long known of the dangers of AMD. In the landmark 1951 case, Rex v Marshall and Another, the judiciary found criminal liability existed for damage caused by AMD. It has responded to the tailings problem with a “hands-off approach” inconsistent with its human rights obligations, the report states.

“It has relocated residents living on a highly radioactive mine dump (in Tudor Shaft) to safer homes, but it has elsewhere allowed construction of new housing projects near tailings dams, and it has also insufficiently addressed the danger of contaminated dust,” notes the report.

Over the past five years, the state has taken “some noteworthy steps” to address the adverse impacts of gold mining, moving beyond primary reliance on industry, “but it has failed to live up to many relevant human rights obligations”.

While the gold mining industry has changed in scale and technology over the past 130 years and government regulation has increased, mining has continued to damage the environment and endanger local populations.

The remains of abandoned “legacy mines” and new operations, including the remining of old sites, have contaminated the region.

The state’s response to the crisis has generally been slow and insufficient, with locals – frequently poor, black communities living in the shadow of mining operations – mostly excluded from decisions.

“The government’s poor record of engaging with residents has been almost as problematic as the adverse effects of mining operations,” adds Docherty.

Mariette Liefferink of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment agrees, pointing out how 1.6 million people continue to live on radioactive mine residue areas in Gauteng.

“We have whistle-blown these alleged human rights violations for more than a decade, noting the systemic failure on the part of the relevant organs of state to protect the human rights of mining-affected communities,” says Liefferink.

What should be done?

South Africa should adopt a programme that both mitigates the effects of mining and helps the country meet its responsibilities under domestic, international and regional human rights law.

“Although mining waste that has accumulated in the past 130 years cannot be eliminated overnight, greater efforts could be made to suppress toxic dust and to remove or buffer communities from contaminated environments,” the report says.

Measures include cleaning up polluted areas, free health screenings, ensuring water treatment plants are adequate to prevent decanting, monitoring degrees of contamination and improving control of run-off and seepage from tailings dams.

“Mitigating the environmental, health and human rights impacts of gold mining in the West and Central Rand will require a significant commitment. The government will need to improve interactions with communities and adopt an overarching plan,” the report says.

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