Parliament has heard that it is unclear who is responsible for managing radioactive and toxic mining waste outside Witwatersrand mine properties.
“My plea is someone must regulate it,” Federation for a Sustainable Environment CEO Mariette Liefferink told members of Parliament’s environmental affairs portfolio committee.
Earlier, she asked MPs – who were hearing inputs on the national waste management strategy – to urgently classify abandoned mining waste, as well as mining waste outside mine properties, as “priority” waste.
In a presentation, tabled at the hearing, she said waste from gold mines constituted “the largest single source of waste and pollution in South Africa”.
The Witwatersrand mining basin’s 270 tailings dams, most of them unlined and without vegetation, were a source of extensive dust as well as soil and water (both surface and groundwater) pollution, Liefferink said.
According to reports, communities living in close proximity to these are exposed to a toxic mix of radioactive uranium, arsenic and heavy metals, present in the air, soil and water.
Threat of pollutants
The chemical, radiological and physical threat these pollutants pose has been described as a “time bomb” and a potentially bigger threat to the region than acid mine drainage.
The National Environmental Management Waste Act, aimed at protecting health and the environment, excludes radioactive waste and mining “residue deposits and residue stockpiles” from its ambit.
It states that these are regulated in terms of the National Nuclear Regulator Act (NNRA) and the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), among others.
Liefferink said the problem was that the NNRA and MPRDA applied only to waste actually on a mine property and not that outside it.
“The MPRDA requires a mine to have an environmental management programme report which becomes legally binding. But it is argued that is only applicable to the mine site.
“If there is any spillage, or migration, of radioactive and toxic waste, that is not regulated under the MPRDA.”
Neither was it regulated in terms of the NNRA, which also only regulated this waste when it was on mine property.
“Whatever residue ... is outside the [mine’s] area [of operation], that is not regulated. At the moment, it falls outside the mandate of all these organs of state,” Liefferink said.
Called to pronounce on whether it was responsible for the management of such pollution, the department of environmental affairs indicated it was not.
Senior manager Nolwazi Cobbinah said the definition of so-called residue stockpiles in the MPRDA covered all mining waste identified as suitable for “potential” re-use.
“As far as we are concerned ... that definition covers the types of waste that Mariette [Liefferink] was referring to,” she said.
Cobbinah said this constrained the department from acting.
Excluding radioactive waste
The National Environmental Management Waste Act, which governed the department’s actions, also specifically excluded radioactive waste, she said.
Democratic Alliance MP Gareth Morgan, who had called for the department to say where it stood on the matter, said he had a problem with the situation because waste moved from mine sites, both through the air and through water.
“It might be the case we have a very serious drafting problem ... I see a problem here,” he said.
Committee chairperson Johnny de Lange said the department’s officials were looking into the matter, together with their mineral resources counterparts.
Liefferink called for co-operative agreements.
“My plea is someone must regulate it. If it is not the department of water and environmental affairs, at least there must be co-operative agreements entered into,” she said.
De Lange said he was grateful he did not live in Gauteng.
“Thank God I live in the Cape. I definitely don’t want to live in Gauteng, anywhere where these things are happening,” he said.
Speaking after making inputs at the committee hearing, Angela Andrews of the Legal Resources Centre said the department was looking at the MPRDA definition and interpreting the “potential re-use” wording the legislation contained as meaning it had no jurisdiction.
“[But] it’s simple – if [the waste] doesn’t have a potential for re-use, it falls under the [National Environmental Management] Waste Act and should be managed. The problem is, waste with no potential re-use is not being managed.
“There is no loophole. It’s clear it [the pollution] must be managed. There’s no ambiguity,” Andrews said. – Sapa