We cannot lure investments at the cost of nature

2015-07-24 09:59

With a view to ensuring the sustainability of the mining industry now and in the future, the Departments of Mineral Resources and Environmental Affairs announced the introduction of a new system as of 08 December 2014, to further improve the competitiveness of South Africa's mining sector. The One Environmental System, as it is known, is aimed at streamlining licensing processes of various authorities.  It represents Government's commitment to improving the ease of doing business, and further enhances South Africa's global competitiveness as a mining investment destination.

However the issue with this system is that now the Department of Mineral Resources has the mandate of promoting mining as well as overseeing it.

At the time of the system coming into effect Melissa Fourie, of the nongovernmental Centre for Environmental Rights said that there is an inherent conflict of interest, because you are giving one agency with a mandate to promote mining the job of policing it.  This means that a department with "no track record" of environmental oversight will be in charge of compliance and enforcement.

"If a mine continues to transgress environmental issues, do you think the department would shut it down and lose that income?"

Historically there has been a long battle that led to the implementation of the One Environmental System, as some would say a “turf war” dating back to 2008, when the two departments agreed to a new system in which the environmental impacts of the mining industry - like all other industries - would be regulated by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Under that agreement, the Minister of Environmental Affairs would gradually assume legal responsibility for environmental authorisation of all mining and prospecting applications.

However, after a five-year lag, a series of amendments to mining laws were introduced that have now entrenched the power of the Minister of Mineral Resources.

Although it is hard to deny the economic benefits of the mining sector and the importance of the sustainably of this sector, the previous environmental regime did deserve criticism in that it was too lengthy and convoluted to obtain the suite of environmental authorisations required for a development of a mine, which had a prohibitive effect on economic investment in the mining sector.

The issue is that the Department of Mineral Resources has a negligible track record of environmental compliance monitoring and enforcement.

Proof of this negligible track record is currently playing out in a civil case taking place at the Cape High Court.  It involves an Australian mining company MRC’s Tormin Mineral Sands Project on the West Coast.

Evidence submitted by MRC’s legal team shows that the Department of Mineral Resources appears to have taken the position that, where a mining company has environmental authorisation for a specified activity under National Environmental Management Act, it can continue to expand that activity indefinitely, regardless of the limits imposed by the original authorisation.

This approach entirely defeats the very purpose of environmental authorisation, which is to allow specified, limited activities to take place under strict conditions in order to carefully manage and monitor adverse environmental impacts.

The Department has effectively told the company that it can expand its mining operation beyond the originally authorised footprint without limit and without any further requirements for authorisation.

In the case of MRC it proves that the Department has either been completely unwilling to enforce the law, or has interpreted it in such a way as to defeat the purposes of sound environmental management.

To further this sentiment a concerned environmental activists following the case have all agreed that it appears the Department is not the suitable agency to enforce environmental transgressions.

This is evident since MRC began mining at Tormin over a year ago.  A series of reports sent out by concerned Vredendal locals, bringing the illegal activities of the Tormin mine to the attention of authorities has not resulted in action or indication that authorities are even investigating.

As an example the reports show a compilation of photographs taken from 2013 to date of the mine site which has crept well beyond the approved boundaries and into the conservation zones. This has destabilised the cliff face and dune vegetation. The worst possible impact of this transgression is cliff failure – which is permanent and cannot be mitigated. The photographs show that this has already happened.

However numerous attempts to bring the concerns of this community to the attention of authorities have proven the Department of Mineral Resources to be remarkably unresponsive.  And ultimately the MRC court case has demonstrated that the Department has not taken the concerns of the Vredendal community seriously.

What is interesting to note is that the Vredendal locals say they are not against mining but fear that it is only a matter of time before a disaster occurs resulting in irreparable damage to the environment, and potential loss of life.

This touches on the concept of “responsible mining” and as a country we could benefit from our vast mineral wealth.  However for this to be a reality regulation must be enforced.  And for this to happen the Department of Mineral Resources needs to acknowledge that it is conflicted and does not have the correct capacity to monitor and enforce environmental transgressions.  The only logical place for this function to reside is with the Department of Environmental Affairs.

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