Mining licences: Who will look after our water?

2012-03-14 12:18

Last year in Parliament it emerged that 69 mines were operating without a water licence.

Water Minister Edna Molewa said in reply to a parliamentary question that 66 of the mines had applied for licences while the remaining three didn’t even bother to apply.

It’s hard to shake the idea that for these 66 mines it was merely a formality to get their water licence, now that the department of mineral resources had given them a mining licence.

A lengthy formality.

In fact, the mining industry frequently asks: Why do we even have to apply for a water licence through a different department? Surely that should be integrated in the mining licence?

The mining houses make a good point.

“Why are we being sent from pillar to post in government to start mining?” Chamber of Mines CEO Bheki Sibiya asked at mining heritage breakfast this week.

Coal of Africa’s CEO John Wallington agreed, adding that coordination between the departments were very difficult to navigate.

Miners want to do deal with one government department, not a host of departments scrapping over whether to give mining houses the green light to mine.

The fight over the Vele mine at Mapungubwe was a case in point. Vele got its mining licence, but had no water licence and when they started their mining activities, they were raided by the Green Scorpions.

Vele owners, Coal of Africa, claimed they were confused by the permit system. Their argument was: Once there is mining permit, surely you can start mining?

Environment Director-General Nosipho Ngcaba, also at the breakfast, could only nod at the critics.

“We are aware of the problem and we are working on it,” she said. And indeed government is. But there is a huge dogfight on the horizon over the permits and who gets to judge the environmental side of an application.

Easy, the mining sector would say: the department of mineral resources. After all, that was why the department was created.

At the moment the mining activity itself only has to get the environmental green light from the mineral department according to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) that regulates mining activities in South Africa.

Yet any other activities such as building a fuel depot or a road associated with a new mine has to get an environmental impact assessment approved by the department of environmental affairs. And then there is the water licences. Confusing, mining houses say.

Leave everything to mineral resources.

But it’s not as simple as making mineral resources the ruling authority. Mineral resources has a specific mandate – to promote and organise mining in South Africa and to look after the industry.

When it comes to a critical environmental decision their sympathies will most likely lie with the mining company.

Water affairs’ mandate is to look after South Africa’s water resources, so it might think twice about awarding a water licence to a dodgy mine – although anecdotal evidence suggests that they rarely refuse mining licences.

At the moment it seems likely that the new permit system’s environmental side will be regulated by the environmental affairs-based National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) – which is good news for environmental pressure groups.

But a big concern remains whether the mineral resources official reviewing the mining licence will have the capacity to understand the intricacies of NEMA and the willpower to red-card a mining application, if there are concerns.

The new permit system is critical. With water becoming a huge issue in new mining frontiers such as the Soutpansberg and Waterberg, government officials will have their work cut out for them.

Everyone agrees a one-stop permit shop is the way to go, but the fight to rule that shop has only just begun.

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