Environmental Impact Studies in Mining

Environmental Impact Studies in Mining

by Ina King (Potgieter) May 2, 2019

The mining industry in South Africa is a major contributor to our growth and development. Mining is one of the most significant sectors of our economy, mining provides jobs and grows our GDP. On par with the rich endowment of mineral resources in South Africa are exceptional endowments of biodiversity and ecosystems. South Africa is globally renowned as a megadiverse country with an extraordinary number of species. However, our biodiversity and environmental richness is being impacted by mining and other land uses in ways that are not sustainable.

Environmental Damage Caused by Mining

Unlike many countries, South Africa has very good quality biodiversity information which provides a sound basis for decision-making with due consideration for biodiversity. At least it should. There is often a failure to fully consider the interdependencies between mining, biodiversity and society. There is often failure to identify significant risks associated with a proposed mining project. Impacts on biodiversity affect a range of ecosystem services with implications for humans - livelihood, safety, security and health.

Biodiversity considerations are relevant throughout the mining life cycle – from discovery to exploration, development and production, and finally to decommissioning and closure. Mine waste is still the largest source of pollution in South Africa and the country is one of the world's largest emitters of CO² in terms of population size.

Although mining is crucial to living better lives, it does substantial harm to our landscape. There is a direct impact on our air, water, public health, wildlife and habitat, water use, land and soil use as well as global warming. The environmental impact of mining includes erosion in the environment, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. Besides creating environmental damage, the contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals also affects the health of the local population. The long-term impact on humanity could be irreparable unless strict environmental and rehabilitation procedures are followed.

Air: Mining operations generate large amounts of material waste that get dispersed by the wind into the air. Toxic particles that get released into the air are absorbed into the body, contributing to human health illnesses.

Land: Mining causes physical destruction on our land - from open pits to rock waste that significantly impact the environment. This pollution affects the fauna and flora around us.

Water: Many elements contaminate our water - metal pollutants like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead and mercury, increased sediment levels in streams and acid mine drainage.

Biodiversity: Destruction or drastic modification of pre-mined landscapes lead to habitat loss, which further affects microorganisms, vegetation and animals. Disruption of habitat can result in extinction for plants and animals that require specific environmental conditions to survive.


Environmental Impact Studies (EIS)

miningWhen development is undertaken, there are inevitably ecological impacts. An Environmental Impact Study is used to provide a sufficient level of detail to demonstrate that a proposed development will have no negative impacts on the natural features or ecology. The purpose of an EIS is to inform the design and configuration of the development, to avoid negative impacts at the outset, and to identify appropriate mitigation and/or compensation for unavoidable impacts.

Section 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, calls on the State to secure the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. An important part of this is understanding the impact of human activities on the environment and the health and well-being of those who live in and depend on that environment.

As a tool, EIAs are intended to facilitate informed and environmentally sound decision making. To be an effective tool in decision-making and environmental management, EIAs must predict and evaluate the impact on not only the environment, but also socio-economic conditions and cultural heritage. The EIA must fully assess alternatives and possible mitigation measures.

Do EIS Work?

Experts say that too often, environmental impact assessments are tipped in favour of development. The obvious problem is the lack of objectivity: the developer pays the consultant, the consultant pays the specialist - and that creates a contrary incentive.

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) acknowledges there are problems. “Despite the strides made towards an improved efficient and effective EIA system, there are criticisms and perceptions of inadequacy about the success of the current EIA system as a tool for environmental impact management,” it says. Climate change and declining environmental quality require stronger, not weaker, action. It is high time that EIAs step up to new challenges.

The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, stated: “South Africa is continuously reviewing and streamlining its environmental regulatory framework. This includes reducing the administrative burden on developers and the state while ensuring the highest level of environmental protection and participation within environmental decision-making.”

Mining and the environment will continue to interact. Without the protection of our biodiversity and natural assets, there cannot be sustained long-term economic growth. Sustainable development requires that negative impacts on the environment and on people's environmental rights, be anticipated and prevented. Where these cannot be prevented, they should be minimised and remedied. Reasonable measures to prevent pollution or degradation of the environment must be taken.

ActionAid released a report on the 5th February 2019 that shows mines are seen as beneficial by only 13% of people who live in their proximity. Four out of five people see no positive impact at all and 8% said mines brought “sickness, dispossessions and damages” according to the report.

The economic benefits generated by mining cannot be ignored, but the environmental and health impacts cannot continue unabated. Our need for natural resources is increasing but are becoming more contaminated.

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