FOSAF NEWS - Is the Government serious about protecting our water resources? By Ed Herbst

In 2009 the SABC broadcast ‘Superdump’ a documentary about the adverse environmental impact of mine dumps.

A decade later Al Jazeera broadcast Toxic City: The Cost of Gold Mining in South Africa   which showed that the earth around Johannesburg’s mine dumps is more radioactive than the earth around Chernobyl.

Narrator Martin Boudot takes hair sample from children of parents living next to the dumps who were born with severe neurological defects and the tests show abnormally high levels of lead and mercury poisoning. The same goes for goats that graze near the dumps and quickly become blind.

Is this not a portent of what is going to happen on the Mpumalanga escarpment which is a critically important source of water, both in terms of volume and quality. The Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment was proclaimed in April 2017 and gives an indication of the ecological importance of this sensitive catchment area which is characterised by a network of wetlands.  Other parts are also protected.

For this reason, it is vital that the protection of this catchment be monitored and enforced by government at all spheres.  Despite this prospecting and mining licences for coal are still being issued for this very sensitive area. To make matters worse there appears to be no real enforcement of the laws governing mining by the various government authorities be it DMR (Department of Mineral Resources) or DWS (Department of Water & Sanitation) or other agencies tasked with ensuring conformity with the law. As a result, it is not surprising that lack of compliance by the mines is the order of the day.

A prime example of this lack of enforcement and compliance is the WPB Colliery, an open cast coal mine between Belfast and Dullstroom.  It is situated near the source of the Elands River, an important tributary of the Crocodile River which flows past Nelspruit to join the Komati River.  A mining right was issued in 2013 and to the surprise of all parties opposing this action, a water use licence was approved in 2015.  This was despite the fact that this site is virtually surrounded by the Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment. This is a protected area and that highlights the ecological sensitivity of this region and indicates why mining should not be permitted here.

Mining commenced in March 2017, a month before the declaration of the protected area, but was halted the next month when the consortium comprising various NGOs, landowners and the protected area association opposing the mine, threatened an urgent interdict as the water use licence had been appealed and the land had not been rezoned for mining. Later in 2017 the inspectorate of the DMR was shown damage to a wetland caused by the mining and although numerous reminders were sent to the DMR no prosecution followed for this criminal offence. In the meantime, the DWS had uplifted the appeal on this water use licence plus others in equally sensitive areas.

As the environmental consortium was concerned about the upliftment of the appeal, charges were laid against the mine at the Belfast police station in April 2018. These charges were based on the fact that in March 2017 WPB had commenced mining without a lawful water use licence (it had been appealed), without rezoning approval and had damaged a wetland. Although a case number was issued, no action followed and the matter was raised with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) which promised to request the docket. Since then, despite regular reminders to the NPA, nothing further has been heard about the case and no explanation has been given. 

In June 2018 mining commenced again and both the DMR and the DWS were advised regularly about what appear to be flagrant breaches and offences in terms of both the mining and water use licences. To date, however, little action has been taken. This is extremely problematic. Apart from other infractions, there is a real danger of acid mine drainage decanting into the Elands River if this has not happened already as there is no evidence that the strict provisions of the water use licence have been complied with. The DWS carried out a full audit of the site in October 2019 and the report on this audit has been requested using the PAIA system. Promises via email and phone messages to supply this report have been made by DWS officials but, as yet, nothing has been forthcoming.

The consortium opposing the mining will probably have to resort to further unnecessary court action to obtain the report. The report is important as it will probably provide clear evidence of the environmental damage caused thus far.  Apart from the damage to the environment, substantial losses have been suffered by the large number of eco-tourism destinations in the neighbourhood.

The pollution of the Vaal River in the absence of an ethos of preventative maintenance – see here and here - is another tragic example of the complete indifference of the ANC government to increasing environmental degradation and its impact on the very people who it claims to represent – the poorest of the poor.

What this seems to indicate is that where there is money to be made, the government’s de facto policy approach is complete indifference to environmental damage caused by mining. The long-term portents of this are equally obvious - as the Al Jazeera documentary indicates.

The land use change (re-zoning from agriculture to mining) is still either incomplete and/or problematic and requests for information from all spheres of government on this important legal requirement have not produced any satisfactory clarification and neither has there been any satisfactory response to complaints from interested and affected parties.

So, in essence, there are three levels of state failure:

  • At municipal level there has been no enforcement of the land use management system.  This is an exclusive municipal competence under the Constitution. The Nkangala Municipality, after many months of enquiry, confirmed that the land where the WPB open cast coal mine is situated has not been rezoned. In addition, they said they were not prepared to take legal action as they did not have the necessary funds;
  • At provincial level, biodiversity management, planning and conservation issues, environmental issues and water issues have not been enforced or complied with; 
  • At national level, the inspectorate of the Department of Mineral  Resources have failed to take action against WPB Colliery for its damage to a wetland;
  • At national level, the SAPS have failed to investigate the charges laid, the NPA has failed to follow up and environmental and water laws have not been enforced or complied with.

In the absence of political will by government to enforce the laws and ensure compliance, it once again becomes a civil society responsibility to try and police these transgressions. This is extremely costly as environmental lobby groups such as Oxpecker have found. So, what can you do to help?  Firstly, you can lobby to bring this to the attention of other interested and affected parties by spreading the word; secondly, you can add your voice to the calls for proper compliance and action by the state.

Damage to a wetland at the WPB Colliery site
A lone butterfly observes the destruction of pristine veld
Unlined ponds at the WPB site full of water with a blue/green tinge indicative of AMD




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