Mine worker Moses Mngomezulu has silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust. And not only miners are affected by the by-products from extractive industries. Communities that live near mines are at higher risk than those that live further away. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Mine worker Moses Mngomezulu has silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust. And not only miners are affected by the by-products from extractive industries. Communities that live near mines are at higher risk than those that live further away. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

MINING creates waste, which causes social and environmental harm, particularly water contamination and air pollution. The consequences are often insidious and the harm becomes obvious only decades later, as with silicosis and acid mine drainage in SA. Silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust, is so prevalent that it is classified as a public health issue. Acid mine drainage, caused by the release of sulphuric acid from minerals such as pyrite into the water table, is a leading cause of water pollution.

There is an uneasy relationship between reaping the benefits of extractive activity and assuming responsibility for its consequences. Mining is, by its nature, destructive and waste-producing.

The cost of mitigating the harm — medical treatment or environmental clean-up costs — is likely to be borne by the state, and, therefore, society. About 4,400 mine workers who have silicosis have found some relief in the settlement of their claims with Anglo American SA and AngloGold Ashanti, to the value of $30m. Thousands of other ill miners are still seeking relief, with an approved class action on the cards.

The government has initiated a R12m project to pump polluted water from underground and treat it. Some of the cost will be borne by the state, but the lion’s share — two-thirds — is intended to be the responsibility of mining companies.

The interests of promoting society, preserving nature, and boosting the economy will always be at odds with one another. Environmental destruction in the name of economic and social development seems inevitable and, conversely, environmental preservation will impede societal and economic development.

The magnitude of the task of balancing these opposing interests make calls for "sustainable" or "green" mining seem like rhetoric. Still, no one would argue that the sustainable use of natural resources will not contribute to the longevity and prosperity of the human race.

Sustainability has increasingly appeared in legal frameworks around the globe. The notion of "sustainable development" and its myriad variations has been catapulted into mainstream thinking and has become integral to business strategies. But frequent talk of sustainability, particularly in the business sector, may feed the belief that its tenets are being realised. They are not.

Some may think that sacrificing health or livelihoods is a fair price to pay for the gains of extraction. But society generally bears the long-term costs of not realising the optimal sustainability balance.

We can make forecasts about the future, particularly in respect of economic gains, but we cannot predict with any certainty the extent of the environmental and social damage. This means the creators of regulatory frameworks for extractive activity must be aware that environmental and social harms may present long after operations have ceased. To do so, regulatory intervention is necessary, but not sufficient. A multifaceted approach is needed. This is particularly evident when dealing with mining waste.

The National Environmental Management Act requires environmental authorisation is obtained before the rights to extract minerals are awarded.

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SOME of the "waste" that is legally acknowledged as "residue deposits" or "residue stockpiles" is required, by the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, to be dealt with in accordance with the mine’s approved environmental management plan or programme.

An application for an environmental authorisation must anticipate the waste, its characterisation, risks, and effects. The act includes a stipulated financial security for possible remediation and the rehabilitation of the environment.

The amount of waste produced while extracting a mineral often exceeds the extracted product. New ways need to be explored to deal with the known risks and consequences of extractive activity, particularly waste.

Mining waste must either be stabilised and rendered "inert" or isolated from the ecosystem. Sustainability would require regulating for the reuse and repurposing of waste to extract the maximum value from mining waste. Ecologically friendly reprocessing methods will not be adopted voluntarily where economic feasibility does not allow for them, which is why regulation is necessary.

Society may choose to provide incentives for the reuse and repurposing of mining waste. We may make such behaviour compulsory through regulatory intervention. If we are truly committed to the sustainable use of natural resources, then minimal waste must be the ultimate goal. The reprocessing or remining of mining waste is not without its hazards. The real effect of extractive activity may remain obscure for a long time. With acid mine drainage, the degradation of the environment occurs so slowly that the disastrous effects are realised decades after. Similarly, chronic silicosis may manifest up to 30 years after the initial exposure.

Communities around mines are already subjected to a higher risk. But if the waste by-product is processed over again, these communities’ burdens are increased. While exploiting our natural resources more efficiently, we cannot harm people or communities. We need to find better ways to anticipate and tackle the hidden costs.

Even though the mechanism to extract financial guarantees for rehabilitation is in place, in many instances, this financial provision is wholly inadequate. Where the government attempts to make a difference — for instance by implementing phase two of the acid mine drainage programme — it meets resistance from taxpayer associations and mining houses.

How we achieve optimal sustainability depends on the variables of the time, and thus our approach to sustainability needs to be adaptive. Mine waste — dust and water contamination — is an issue that will eventually affect all.

It is time for society to choose the best response to these man-made problems. It is time for us all to take responsibility.

Prof Hanri Mostert is the SARChI chair for mineral law in Africa and Dr Young is at UCT’s department of private law