“Sinkholes, Starvation and Suffering”: the Legacy of Coal Mining in South Africa? | by David Van Wyk

by Oct 15, 2014Magazine

Even as South Africa marks the two-year anniversary of the Marikana massacre – which marked a decisive turning point for the country’s platinum mining sector – extensive new research indicates that the coal mining industry poses a wide range of serious challenges of its own to the country’s hard-won democracy.

Released on 19 August, the Bench Marks Foundation’s report, “Policy Gap 9: South African Coal Mining: Corporate Grievance Mechanisms, Community Engagement Concerns and Mining Impacts”, details many of the ways in which coal mining is on a path to leave a legacy at least as damning as that of the country’s platinum industry.

The report focuses on communities near mines in the Nkangala District including Witbank (eMalahleni) and Middelburg (Steve Tshwete) in South Africa and on two mining corporations, Anglo American Corporation and BHP Billiton. It shows in detail that the cavalier attitude of the mining industry and government towards proper closure of mines and rehabilitation of the environment, flagrantly disregarding the country’s admirably strict environmental and water legislation, is seriously affecting communities near mines in a number of ways, and has a huge adverse impact on the rest of South Africa.

“Throughout South Africa, thousands of communities are living in areas that should have been closed off due to its extremely hazardous conditions,” says John Capel, Executive Director for the Bench Marks Foundation. “Children are playing on soil that spontaneously combusts. Water is polluted and the environmental effects of mining are destroying large areas of land which, without rehabilitation, will leave a nasty and deadly legacy for generations to come.”

The report shows that coal mining is a major contributor to acid mine drainage in South Africa. The report states that human exposure to acid mine drainage pollutants can occur through ingestion of contaminated water, food or through dermal absorption via water or air.

“Even those of us not living very close to mines will be affected,” says Capel. “Research shows that metals such as aluminium, copper, zinc and arsenic can be absorbed by plant tissue when exposed to elevated concentration. These plants are then eaten by animals and humans.

Abandonment rather than closure of mines

Under the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRD), mining companies are required to set aside funds to pay for effective mine closure. But many mining companies skirt this by selling mines as they approach the end of their productive lives to new, smaller companies that lack the capacity to carry out proper closures.

“This is causing a major cost externalisation to society, as post-closure impacts are extensive,” say Capel. “Therefore, we are not only dealing with major environmental, health and social problems while mines are active, but we have to deal with them when they close too.”

Compromising food security

In addition to compromising the general environmental conditions around mining areas, mining activities pose a range of specific threats to South Africa’s food systems. Open-cast coal mining in particular is cutting drastically into the land available for agricultural production, especially of maize – the staple food of the majority of South Africans. Food prices will inevitably rise as a result.

The report quotes information from the Bureau of Food and Agriculture Production stating that if current mining areas are overlaid with the latest field crop boundaries, a total of 326,022 hectares of farmland will be lost to mining; a further 439,577 hectares are at risk if the prospecting area is also transferred. This means that 765,599 hectares of cultivated land would be lost if all mining activities are taken into account.

Coal mining in Mpumalanga is also polluting available water supplies, further undermining farming in the region. Severe air pollution from mining operations also affects the drinking water for cattle, compromising milk production and quality. Farmers in the area report that the combination of air pollution and water pollution can also affect the fertility of their herds.

“Furthermore, the continuous mine blasting is destroying farmer’s boreholes, and polluting the water. Water is turning red, and is unfit for agricultural use, never mind domestic use,” says Capel. “Farmers are concerned that the full extent of the impact on water quantity and quality are still to be determined. Changes in the sulphur, calcium and pH levels can have a significant impact on farming.”

Promoting dangerous child labour

One especially disturbing finding from the report concerns the way in which abandoned mines appear to be contributing to a rise of child labour under extremely dangerous circumstances.

“Our community monitors have also found that the coal waste pile on the edge of Likazi information settlement community at Coronation mine is being re-mined by artisanal monitors. These miners dig for coal to sell to people in informal settlements who do not have access to electricity,” says Capel.

“We have discovered that children are being used in the re-mining of the mine. They tunnel their way under the coal pile and then pass trays loaded with coal in a relay fashion to the mouth of the tunnel. According to a guide who helped our research team, an adult and two boys recently died at this mine when the tunnel they had dug under the mine waste collapsed on them.”

Banks failing to do proper due diligence on mining projects

The report also indicates that some banks are not checking whether the mining projects they are financing comply with legislative and regulatory requirements before releasing funding for the project.

“In this report, we found that many mines in eMalahleni, seem to obtain funding and mining licences well in advance of water use licences,” says Capel.

According to the report, Anglo Coal conducted numerous public and interest group consultations during 2006, in 2010 and then in 2011 as part of its environmental impact assessment (EIA) process towards obtaining its mining licence for its new Largo Mine. However, there is a huge discrepancy between this first process toward completing its EIA requirements, and its public meetings towards its application for a water licence, which only took place in 2011, a full five years after the EIA consultation.

All of these challenges must be viewed against the wider backdrop of rising tensions running through South African society. Unless urgent steps are taken to address the valid grievances of communities affected by mining – steps towards truthful, transparent and equal consensus-seeking community engagement practices – the social, labour and economic crises currently plaguing the mining industry in South Africa are set to continue – and are also likely to escalate.

David Van Wyk was lead researcher for Bench Marks Foundation on the report discussed above. The full report – along with Bench Marks Foundation’s other research reports – is available from www.bench-marks.org.za.

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