Government’s failure to ensure that mining companies comply with the law is causing unprecedented environmental degradation and chronic health problems in Mpumalanga – with dire consequences for communities and SA’s future prosperity. The situation is the result of neglect, limited resources and wilful inaction by the Departments of Mineral Resources and Water and Sanitation.

These are the findings of a new report by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), a non-profit organisation that helps communities to defend their Constitutional right to a healthy environment.

Zero Hour:  Poor Governance of Mining and the Violation of Environmental Rights in Mpumalanga is an extensive study into poor mining governance and the violation of environmental rights. It draws on evidence spanning more than five years including: research reports; court and pre-litigation cases; parliamentary submissions; parliamentary questions and answers; access to information requests; meetings with the Departments of Mineral Resources (DMR) and Water and Sanitation (DWS); field visits and community meetings; and meetings with mining companies and local government officials.

Catherine Horsfield, the CER’s Mining Programme Head, says: “Prospecting and mining applications for Mpumalanga increased by over 300% between 2005 and 2010. By 2014, 61.3% of the surface area of Mpumalanga fell under prospecting and mining right applications. The majority of these were for coal mining. Civil society and even other government agencies have repeatedly called on the DMR and DWS to comply with the law by refusing licence applications that will cause unacceptable pollution and degradation. Instead, they continue to grant licences with blatant disregard for the consequences for water resources, health, biodiversity, air quality and food security.”

Risks to water security
“Mpumalanga contains large areas which are strategically critical to the country’s water supply. In the past decade, the DMR and DWS have granted rights for mining and water use in the headwaters of Mpumalanga’s most important rivers, in protected areas, and in our “water factories” – 8% of the country that provides more than 50% of our freshwater runoff. In granting mining and water use rights in these areas, the DMR and DWS are risking South Africa’s water security and enabling large-scale pollution of these resources,” Horsfield says.

Risks to food security
The CER’s concerns are not limited to the impact on water resources. Zero Hour shows that mining expansion in Mpumalanga has devastating consequences for agriculture. Horsfield continues: “Mining destroys agriculture as it involves the removal of huge quantities of topsoil. A mere 1.5% of SA’s soils are considered to have high agriculture potential and nearly half (46.6%) of that is found in Mpumalanga. If mining continues at this rate, around 12% of SA’s total high potential arable land will be ruined, with dire consequences for food security.”

Risks to air quality and health
Mining in Mpumalanga also has severe impacts on air quality and the health of communities. The Mpumalanga Highveld has some of the worst air quality in the world. With 5,000 coal trucks using Mpumalanga’s roads daily, dust from mine haul roads alone contributes an estimated 49% of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the Highveld Air Pollution Priority Area.

Horsfield says: “Communities in Mpumalanga are exposed to water, soil, noise and dust pollution – all contributing to ill health – and many experience social disruption ranging from increased crime to forced resettlement. Marginalised communities suffer most:  settlements are frequently located in close proximity to mines; houses crack from blasting operations; and some collapse through subsidence. With environmental non-compliance left unchecked, mines continuously leach toxic water into ground and surface water on which many people depend.”

Not enough officials
Despite these threats, neither the DMR nor the DWS has anywhere near the number of officials required to review licence applications, and to monitor and enforce legal compliance in Mpumalanga. In 2015, there were 239 operating mines and 788 derelict and ownerless mines in Mpumalanga, yet only five officials in the DMR to monitor compliance with environmental laws at these mines. In 2015, the DWS employed two officials in Mpumalanga to perform both compliance monitoring and enforcement functions. “Without regular compliance monitoring and predictable enforcement action, companies are left to their own devices.* The state’s failure to prioritise compliance violates environmental and other human rights and facilitates rights violations by mining companies.”

Mpumalanga must move to job creation in clean, renewable energy
Horsfield concludes: “Caution about mining expansion in the face of its devastating impacts is frequently dismissed in the name of economic development, and the employment that mining supposedly brings to the province. However, as at the first quarter of the 2014/2015 financial year, mining contributed only 4.8% to Mpumalanga’s employment. We want to see the province rolling out a steady transition from coal mining and coal-fired power generation to clean, renewable energy, providing jobs without the large-scale devastation that coal leaves behind.”

Zero Hour demonstrates that, in Mpumalanga, prioritising profit from short-term financial gains does not make economic, social or environmental sense. It is time for the DMR and the DWS to act decisively to prioritise the people and environment in Mpumalanga, and to hold mining companies to account for their actions, in the interests of SA’s prosperity.

* In September 2015, the CER published an assessment of 20 listed SA companies with significant environmental impacts that regularly appeared on the JSE’s Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Index. Entitled Full Disclosure, its purpose was to ascertain the extent of compliance with environmental laws, as well as the extent to which non-compliance was disclosed by these companies to shareholders between 2008 and 2014. Full Disclosure found that many companies which have regularly been hailed as shining examples for their approach to managing environmental, social and governance factors, including many mining companies, have in fact committed serious breaches of environmental laws during the assessment period.