Minerals department cuts budget for environmental oversight in mining

Less oversight means mines could cut corners in areas such as dampening the dust coming from their operations.

Less oversight means mines could cut corners in areas such as dampening the dust coming from their operations.

NEWS ANALYSIS

The premise was simple: it takes too long to grant mining permits – a delay that was getting in the way of a boom in South Africa digging up and selling its raw materials. So, in his 2013 State of the Nation address, the president said mining applications needed to get rubber-stamped within 300 days.

Bouncing between the water affairs, environmental affairs and mineral resources departments threatened this. That led to the government’s One Environment System, which allowed the mineral resources department to take over control of environmental monitoring.

A department tasked with promoting an extractive industry would – as of late 2013 – be responsible for ensuring that extraction did not harm the environment. Civil society groups questioned how a system where the player was also the referee could work. Numerous objections were lodged to the parliamentary subcommittee on mining. The World Wide Fund for Nature said the change “leaves room for [the minerals department] to exploit natural resources at the expense of sustainable practices”. The objections had little effect.

To meet its mandate, the department had to rapidly grow its environmental mineral resource inspectorate. This would take over the work previously done by the same unit at the environmental affairs department, dubbed the Green Scorpions, which had taken a decade to build. The treasury transferred R59-million to the minerals department to build up its inspectorate.

But this year’s budget has slashed both the funding and ambition of the inspectors, with R37-million cut from the mining regulation programme. In 2014 it had a set target of 1 856 mine inspections to check for environmental offences. Last year, this number dropped to 1 700. This year it is targeting a total of 1 275 inspections – a 25% drop in one year.

Louis Snyman, of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, says: “[Mineral resources] tried to convince everyone that it would do a good job at oversight, but this cut shows that its priorities lie with everything besides the environment.”

Less oversight will mean mines could get away with more environmental offences than they already do, he says. “Mines already get carte blanche to do what they want and this is just encouraging them.”

Responding to the budget vote, the portfolio committee on mineral resources delivered a damning indictment of the funding cut. “Despite the declared intention of [the minerals department] to ‘protect and enhance our environmental assets’ and to ensure compliance with environmental legislation, the department has significantly reduced the number of environmental verification inspections in its performance targets.”

Little information exists on the effectiveness of these inspections – or whether the   department reaches its annual targets. The Mail & Guardian has repeatedly asked for these details, without success.

Civil society groups such as Lawyers for Human Rights have also asked for information. Often, the response to these requests – as public records show – is that any information has to be kept private because it is “sensitive” and “could negatively affect the share price of listed companies”.

The same goes for the number of inspectors doing environmental oversight in the department and at its regional branches. When the task was taken from the environmental affairs department in late 2013, it was spending about R70-million a year with 120 officials at a national level. These only dealt with 10% of all cases – with the rest handled at a provincial level, and on the books of other departments.

The minerals department was given R59-million after telling the treasury it had no funding for its inspectors. But, unlike the environmental affairs department, which releases an annual compliance monitoring report, there is precious little oversight information coming out of the minerals department.

Speaking to the National Council of Provinces last year, the department said: “Nine regional managers and an additional 60 officials have been trained on the implementation of the [environmental] regulations.”

Its budget said there are 375 employees in the overall mineral regulation programme. But these have to cover the work of granting licences, running the diamond and precious metals regulator, and compliance with other types of licences.

Samson Mokoena, of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, said communities get no support from the department.

“We are responsible for our own oversight when it comes to mines and other big companies. Who else is going to do it?” he says.

Less oversight means mines could cut corners in areas such as dampening the dust coming from their operations, he says, adding: “Nobody seems to care about the communities that suffer when government is not on the side of the people.”

 
Sipho Kings

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