Thungela grilled over toxic spill as criminal probe is launched

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July Ndlovu, CEO of Thungela Resources.
July Ndlovu, CEO of Thungela Resources.
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  • A criminal probe is under way regarding a toxic acid mine drainage spill after an old mine shaft collapsed at the Kwezela colliery's Kromdraai site. 
  • Thungela says its disclosure was "exemplary". 
  • But it has come under fire from shareholder activists over transparency, for failing to mention a directive issued to it by the Department of Water and Sanitation, as well as the criminal investigation. 

Shareholder activists took aim at Thungela Resources during the coal miner’s very first annual general meeting (AGM), and poked holes in the company’s rehabilitation programme and transparency following a toxic acid mine drainage spill that has prompted a criminal investigation.

During the company’s inaugural AGM on Tuesday, Just Share, a non-profit shareholder activism organisation, put this and other tough questions to Thungela, ranging from its inclusion and diversity policy to its support for carbon capture and storage. 

Regarding a toxic water spill at the Khwezela colliery’s Kromdraai site, which Thungela had disclosed to shareholders in its annual reports, Just Share said the company had - despite its claim to support transparent communication - failed to mention a directive issued to it by the Department of Water and Sanitation and a resultant criminal investigation.

Department of Water and Sanitation spokesperson Sputnik Ratau confirmed to Fin24 on Tuesday that there was a criminal case under investigation against Thungela in relation to the spill.

In a directive issued to Thungela earlier this year, the department said an old mine shaft collapse led to the overflow of acidic water, potentially polluting a nearby water resource and killing fish within the Wilgerivier.

Addressing the AGM, Thungela CEO July Ndlovu said the company was aware of the criminal probe, but had first learnt of it through the media. "But at this stage, we have not been charged. As and when all these factors come to fruition, we will disclose to the market the status at that point in time," he said.

'Exemplary' disclosure

Ndlovu said the company’s disclosure of the spill had, in fact, been "exemplary", as Thungela had notified the markets of the event when reporting its 2021 results, even though the spill was a "post-balance-sheet event". 

"We are working tirelessly with our stakeholders to develop a plan to try to remedy the effects of this incident as best as we can. We have retained the services of scientists to work with our stakeholders so that we can put together a comprehensive remedial action," he said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) highlighted that, although Thungela claims to "have comprehensive mine closure and rehabilitation programmes that seek to return previously mined land to its original condition for sustainable use", numerous media reports over the past few months have documented serious environmental and health impacts from unrehabilitated Thungela mines beyond the spill, as well as fires at Khwezela colliery.

Illegal mining

While Thungela has said illegal miners have been behind these incidents, Just Share said illegal miners "would not have access to these mines, or the opportunity to cause damage, if they had been rehabilitated 'back to their original condition' according to the law". 

Ndlovu said it takes time to rehabilitate mining areas, and that when illegal miners moved in, Thungela worked with law enforcement to stop the illicit mining activity. "And there are many examples in and around our mining areas where we've done this responsibly and to best practice," he added. 

Just Share also questioned Thungela’s support for developing carbon capture and storage (CCS), in South Africa.

"Despite decades of experimentation, none of the many so-called 'pilot projects' in South Africa or anywhere in the world have been successful in the development of commercially viable CCS, at scale," the NGO said.

"How can Thungela justify supporting the expenditure of millions of dollars of capital on further CCS experimentation, when the solutions to our energy challenges are clear, and the need to act is urgent, and when the funding being pumped into CCS could be transformational in supporting workers and communities in Mpumalanga as we transition to a low-carbon economy?"

Red flag

Ndlovu said the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report recognises the need to invest in multiple technologies, including CCS.

"We believe that, in fact, in South Africa, the need to invest in renewables is urgent and necessary, South Africa is short of energy as we speak. Therefore, that investment is absolutely required," the Thungela CEO said. "But, equally, we've got to continue to do what we need to do to support the communities [whose] livelihoods depend on us. And the markets that have stated clearly that for them to tackle energy poverty, they'll continue to use coal well into the mid-2040s."

Although coal has supposedly fallen out of favour with the investment community, Thungela – a pure coal play – boasts some big investing names among its largest shareholders. These include the Vanguard Group, BlackRock Investment Management, Coronation Asset Management and the Public Investment Corporation.

In a statement released ahead of the AGM, Just Share said "a pure-play thermal coal company which has not reported in alignment with the TCFD [Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures], which has no science-based climate strategy or emission reduction targets, and which expresses its intention to expand its operations, should be a serious red flag for investors".

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