The department of mineral resources and energy needs an estimated R49-billion to rehabilitate about 6 000 mines abandoned by their owners.
These mines are a legacy of a time when mining companies could walk away from their environmental liabilities — leaving poisons and heavy metals to leak into rivers and deadly dust to blow across the land.
An average of about R120-million is spent annually on rehabilitating these mines.
These numbers emerged during the department’s briefing of the portfolio committee for mineral resources and energy on November 20. Director general Abednigo Hlungwani said the department is now responsible for these mines — alongside the human settlements, water and sanitation department.
Hlungwani told the committee that its priority is to rehabilitate 245 asbestos sites, because pollution from these mines causes serious lung diseases.
To date, 27 asbestos mines have been rehabilitated. Rehabilitating all 245 will cost R1.7-billion. The mines are mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape, North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
But the rehabilitation process at each mine has been painstakingly slow. Hlungwani said that just nine asbestos mines have been rehabilitated in the past five years. A further nine will be rehabilitated in the next two financial years, he said.
The main problem with the rehabilitation is that asbestos sites tend to be in mountains, making it difficult to get to the site and then clean it up. As a result, each rehabilitation runs at between R40-million and R60-million.
Of the non-asbestos sites, 137 are being prioritised because the pollution they are causing is worse than that from other mines. Coal mines pose a serious threat to water sources — acid mine drainage has already contaminated water in Gauteng and in towns like Carolina in Mpumalanga. The minerals department said it will need R7.5-billion to clean up these mines.
Despite mining companies having profited from their operations, all these costs, running to R49-billion in the coming years, is being carried by the fiscus.
The minerals department said — and has been saying for several years — that there is little it can do but take on the problem and fix the 6 000 abandoned mines. In Parliament last month, its officials said it was only in 2002, when the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) came into effect, that rehabilitation became a requirement for mines.
The auditor general’s guidelines say that, under the law, mines can only close if they have been issued with a closure certificate. The owner of a mine remains responsible for all liabilities related to that mine until a closure certificate has been issued. The Act further requires the owner to make financial provision for all environmental liabilities related to the mine.
If a closure certificate has not been issued and no party can be traced to assume responsibility for the liabilities of an abandoned mine, it may be classified as derelict and ownerless and government may provide funding for its rehabilitation. This is the case in the majority of the 5 906 mines closed down before 2002 when the Act came into existence.
But this interpretation of liability is not universally accepted.
Danjelle Midgley, an environmental law specialist at the Centre for Environmental Rights, disagrees with the department, and cites section 28 of the National Environmental Management Act.
She says: “I think the minerals department could use other legislative tools to pursue previous holders of mining rights who caused environmental damage under the pre-MPRDA regime.”
There are mines that were sold off to companies that then went bankrupt and had to be liquidated — a common tactic that allowed mining companies to escape the cost of rehabilitation.
But Midgley says: “Those that can be identified and who benefitted through their extraction and caused environmental degradation should certainly be pursued.”
Section 28 helps. It holds that: “Every person who causes, has caused or may cause significant pollution or degradation of the environment must take reasonable measures to prevent such pollution or degradation from occurring, continuing or recurring, or, in so far as such harm to the environment is authorised by law or cannot reasonably be avoided or stopped, to minimise and rectify such pollution or degradation of the environment.”
This is the principle that the polluter pays. It is the cornerstone of South Africa’s environmental law. But, in the case of 6 000 abandoned mines being rehabilitated by the minerals department, it has failed.