State to foot environmental bill for abandoned mines

Six thousand of the more than 7 500 mines in South Africa are abandoned and the government must spend R30-billion to fix the environmental damage caused by them.

The other mines pay a fee to the department of mineral resources to cover their own rehabilitation. The department told the Mail & Guardian last year that this amounted to R45-billion, but in a court case it claims not to know how much has been handed over by the mines.  

This claim was made after a Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) request by the nongovernmental Centre for Environmental Rights. It asked for a list of the environmental specialists used by the department, and for details about the money that it has been given by the mines for rehabilitation. No answer was forthcoming.

It took the Pretoria high court to order the department to release “records detailing the total quantum of financial provision held by the department of mineral resources”. The order said, if these records did not exist, the department should file an affidavit that confirmed “under oath” that the records “do not exist”.

An affidavit to that effect was filed.

“The records have to exist. It would be negligence if they do not,” says Cath­erine Horsfield, the head of the Centre for Environmental Rights’s mining unit. “But what does it say about the record keeping of the department if it cannot find documents that it needs to give oversight?”

The centre has applied for similar records from the provincial offices of the department, and has received similar answers. In Mpumalanga, where the majority of new mining applications are being filed, a Paia request has been waiting two years because officials say their documents are stored in another office.

Horsfield says these documents are needed if mines are to be inspected regularly – so that what they are doing may be compared with what they said they would do. “Without the details, you cannot have oversight.”

Oversight is at the heart of the department’s mandate to promote mining. But there is a corollary – it has to ensure that the mining is safe and does not do undue damage to people and the environment. This is anchored in environmental legislation, which says the “polluter-pays principle” applies to anything that affects the environment.

This process starts when a mine applies for a licence. Each mine has to provide an environmental management plan, setting out what impact the mining will have and how this will be managed to cause the least damage. This allows officials from mineral affairs to check operations against the promises made in the plans, and also to check their work when a mine is closed. The end goal is to rehabilitate the mined area, and the management plan includes a fee for this.

Big mining companies have teams of specialists who can work out how much it will cost, for example, to fix a diverted river, or return a graded gravel road to veld. Smaller miners do not have this luxury. They use the department’s Guideline Document for the Evaluation of the Quantum of Closure-Related Financial Provision Provided by a Mine.

This was released in 2005, and the costs have not been updated. Departmental officials use the same guideline when evaluating new rehabilitation plans. Calculations by the auditor general show that, by using the outdated figures, mines can be underestimating the rehabilitation costs of their operations by 50%.

An abandoned asbestos mine in Limpopo. (Paul Botes, M&G)

An investigation into mining rehabilitation by the civil society group World Wide Fund for Nature found that the department has little in the way of standardised checks on mining applications and rehabilitation funds. This means “plans containing deficiencies have nevertheless been approved” by the department.

Dozens of applications made no mention of rehabilitation, and hundreds were so vague that the mines could close without doing serious rehabilitation, it said.  

Rehabilitation is a requirement when a mine wants to close. Legally, operations only end when a closure certificate is issued – when the area has been returned to as close to its original state as possible, and negative environmental and health impacts have been dealt with.

In submissions to Parliament, the department says few of these certificates have been issued. Instead, it says it is dealing with the 6 152 mines that have no owners. Rehabilitation will cost R30-billion, with most of this being spent on the 1 730 mines it classifies as high risk. The first to be dealt with are the 200-odd abandoned asbestos mines, because of health risks.  

But this number only factors in the cost of closing old mines. It does not look at the ongoing health and environmental costs of current and old mines. Many smaller studies link mines with all sorts of diseases.

In addition to making people sick, new and old mines cause ongoing environmental damage. In 2012, the small Mpuma­langa town of Carolina had to turn its water plant off because acid mine water had overwhelmed its treatment works and was eating through municipal pipes.

A recent report by the auditor general estimates that R5-billion is needed to build the infrastructure to process acid mine water in Gauteng. This will require hundreds of millions of rands a year to operate.

Civil society groups say mining companies have become experts at shifting environmental responsibility – and rehabilitation costs – on to the state.

Mariette Liefferink, of the Fed­eration for a Sustainable Environ­ment, says mines have historically operated under the knowledge that they can exploit failures in governance to escape rehabilitation.

“They are experts at playing the game and DMR [the department of mineral resources] allows them to do so because they want mines and exports more than a healthy environment.” 

Mines make a mockery of user-pays principle

Blyvoor, southwest of Johannes-burg, used to be an incredibly productive gold mine. In the 1960s, its accompanying town Blyvooruitzicht had the highest per capita income in South Africa.

But dwindling profits meant it kept being sold, eventually ending up belonging to DRDGold. A year after saying it would be profitable past 2030, the company sold Blyvoor to Village Main Reef. Shortly after taking over, Village claimed the sale had not gone through and the mine went into liquidation. Neither company admits to owning the mine. This means they both deny responsibility for rehabilitation.

Work to control its negative environmental impact, such as pumping water out of mine shafts and dampening its dust so it does not blow over homes, stopped.

The water and environment departments say they cannot enforce any remedial action because it is up to the mineral resources department. But that department says it cannot do anything because the mine is in liquidation, and now falls under the jurisdiction of the Companies Act.

This allows the mine to be closed without a closure certificate, or rehabilitation. The R35-million rehabilitation fee – down from the R111-million set out in its mining licence – has gone into the liquidation pot, to be given to creditors. Rehabilitation is, in practice, at the end of that queue.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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