by Ina King (Potgieter) May 30, 2019
Since the early 1990s, with the enactment of the 1991 Minerals Act, progress has been made regarding mining land rehabilitation and mine reclamation. Communities living in the vicinity of un-rehabilitated mining land face long-term risk and abandoned mines leave a legacy of pollution and the risk to life due to illegal mining operations.
Mining continues its 133-year history in South Africa. It is still a vital component of the development of our country and the backbone of our economy. Simultaneously, mining has had an impact on South Africa’s environment and people. The negative impact caused by the approximately 6 000 abandoned mines across South Africa, has not been fully recognised or dealt with.
The South African landscape, particularly in the South of Johannesburg, is filled with mine dumps bearing testament to a rich mining heritage. According to Oxpeckers, since 2011 no large coal mines operating in South Africa have been granted closure. This means the mines have not been rehabilitated and are simply abandoned, leaving a legacy of local and global pollution. They say it would take at least R30-billion to clean up the thousands of abandoned mines scattered around the country.
Mine reclamation is the process of restoring land that has been mined to a natural or economically usable state. The goal of mine reclamation is to create useful landscapes that restore ecosystems, allow for the creation of industrial and municipal resources, and minimise and mitigate the negative environmental effects of mining, particularly for communities living in affected areas. The most appropriate mine reclamation strategies for abandoned mines should address both environmental and physical hazard problems, while improving the social and economic status of the host community.
Finite resources entail a finite mining life cycle. A guideline for the rehabilitation of land disturbed by surface coal mining was first published by the Chamber of Mines in 1981 which provided excellent guidance for coal strip mine rehabilitation at the time. However, both legal requirements and rehabilitation objectives and procedures have changed considerably over the last 38 years.
We do have a legal framework that instructs the mining industry on what to do to minimise environmental impacts from mining activities – the Department of Mineral and Energy’s (DME) Mine Environmental Management (MEM) guidelines – however, information on how to achieve compliance is not consolidated into a single framework.
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 Section is knowing and understanding what the impact of mining activities on the environment will be and how the health and well-being of those who live in the area and depend on that environment can be affected.
Documents obtained from the Department of Mineral Resources by Oxpeckers confirm that very few companies apply to close large-scale mines legally, and that the money set aside for environmental rehabilitation is often minimal. Regulatory failure around mine closures has scarred South Africa with thousands of abandoned mines and waste sites. Without proper closure, the mining industry has left a legacy of pollution and health risk.
South African law requires mining companies to set aside funds before obtaining mining licences for mine reclamation and land rehabilitation once the mine has reached the end of its life. Once a mine is rehabilitated and closed, the money is returned. If a mine is abandoned, the department has the right to take these funds and use them for rehabilitation. According to the DMR, as of 2015, R45bn is held in financial provisions for rehabilitation.
The moment that a mine obtains a closure certificate the liabilities, responsibilities and accountability transfer back to the state. The Federation for a Sustainable Environment believes that one of the contributing factors to the number of abandoned mines across the country and a key reason why so few closure certificates are issued is that the state does not wish to carry the costs of reclamation.
The National Environmental Management Laws Amendment Bill (NEMLA IV) is currently being considered by the National Council of Provinces and if proposed amendments are implemented, the Bill will provide much needed clarity for the mining industry. Previous legislation required mines to return the impacted land to its pre-mining state, an ideal that is far-fetched and impractical, particularly in the case of opencast pits. NEMLA IV recognises these practical difficulties and allows mining companies to propose a sustainable closure solution in line with "asset transformation" and the chance to establish new industries on rehabilitated mine sites. Another change will provide for progressive rehabilitation concurrent with mining activities which could allow mining companies to reduce the amount of money that is required to be set aside for final rehabilitation.
Illegal mining is on the rise in South Africa and presents multi-dimensional challenges that need to be addressed. Illegal miners, known in South Africa as ‘zama zamas’, mainly access closed off and abandoned mines. The state in which South Africa’s closed collieries, for example, have been left varies greatly from best practice closure to abandonment. Abandoned coal seams can be illegally re-accessed by artisanal miners and zama zamas. Illegal miners frequently risk their own health and safety, as well as that of others, by entering abandoned shafts, travelling as far as 4km underground, where they live for several days at a time. Illegal artisanal mining is often organised and conducted by crime syndicates, zama zamas are often heavily armed and may set ambushes and traps for miners when trespassing on operating mines. Reportedly, there are between 8 000 and 30 000 illegal miners in South Africa and approximately 6 000 abandoned mines available to work in.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 40% of operational mines held inadequate financial provisions in 2012/13. This was in part due to the fact that the guidelines for calculating financial provisions for mine reclamation have not been updated in more than 10 years. In order to clean up the mining mess that South Africa finds itself in, impacts on the environment and the health of poor communities along the mining belt must be properly taken into account. Successful closure and mine reclamation must consider realistic approaches to medium-to-long-term post mining land use and land capability. NEMLA IV will, hopefully, provide the much needed clarity for the mining industry so we can sustainably balance mining and the impact on the environment.
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