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Afrique du sud : The Forever Mines

Perpetual Rights Risks from Unrehabilitated Coal Mines in South Africa

D 14 novembre 2022     H 06:00     A Human Rights Watch     C 0 messages

On September 24, 2016, everything changed for two families in Ermelo, a town in Mpumalanga province, eastern South Africa, in the heart of South Africa’s coal country. It was the day 17-year-old Xolani Mthembu and his 14-year-old friend, Sifiso Yende, drowned in an abandoned coal mine in Wesselton on the northern outskirts of Ermelo. The mine was last owned by Imbabala Coal (Pty) Ltd. The company had ceased operating the mine five years earlier when the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) found it did not have the requisite license for water use. Subsequently, the abandoned mine filled with rainwater in which the two teenagers drowned.

Following the drownings, an official from the Msukaligwa Local Municipality, one of the municipal authorities in Ermelo, promised that the government would ensure access was restricted and erect warning signs at the mine site. Five years later, when Human Rights Watch went to visit, the site was still completely accessible with no fence, restrictions on access, or warning signs. Thomas Mthembu, Xolani’s uncle, described to Human Rights Watch the ongoing risks such abandoned mines pose to residents of the community :

“What we ask ourselves is whether this is how things should be… that mine wasn’t rehabilitated and there isn’t even a warning sign, so the children saw [it as] a swimming pool. The worst part is that my nephew [will not be] the last one. There are still children that will go there.”

Xolani and Sifiso’s drownings underscore both the risks of accidents from unfettered access to unrehabilitated mines and the South African government’s failure to address these risks.
Across South Africa, according to government records, there are no fewer than 400 abandoned coal mines like the one in Wesselton, Ermelo where the boys drowned. In addition to accident risks, abandoned and unsecured mines leave behind a toxic legacy of polluted land and highly-acidic water that can harm local communities in a myriad of ways.

Residual coal deposits in Mpumalanga are also accessed by artisanal miners, known as zama zamas [an isiZulu term meaning “to try and try again”]. Artisanal miners may eke out a living, but at high risk : they have little protective equipment and enjoy no labour or health and safety protections while working in dangerous underground mine shafts.

Artisanal miners Human Rights Watch interviewed said there are more deaths than is publicly acknowledged in official records or published in the local media. Because artisanal miners are working illegally, most of their deaths are never recorded by law enforcement and police often do not investigate. An independent analysis by an investigative journalist of South African English-language media coverage between 2012 and 2015 found reports of 312 deaths, at least 150 because of collapsing tunnels, gas poisoning, suffocation, and explosives accidents.

The risks from unrehabilitated mines extend far beyond the people who access the sites – they risk polluting the water of millions of South Africans. Coal across South Africa is found predominantly in ores with sulfur-bearing minerals. When these ores come into contact with water and air, sulfuric acid is created, which can lead to further leaching of heavy metals from ores. This reaction poses significant risks to water and agricultural land in many parts of South Africa, including in Mpumalanga. Acid mine drainage (AMD), if left untreated, can have devastating impacts : it can render water unusable, soils unproductive, and even corrode municipal infrastructure for water delivery. Management of AMD is a complex, technical, and expensive process, but one that is part of proper operational management of a mine, both during and after its operation. In South Africa, the lack of both proper rehabilitation of mines and enforcement of regulatory requirements increases concerns about AMD. The central government does not provide basic data on surface water or groundwater quality that would allow it or others to identify and quantify risks of AMD to human health, and thereby meet obligations under the right to health to protect against harm. With respect to the right to water, there are domestic legal obligations to ensure that potable water is available, yet neither the national nor local governments have taken effective steps to address the risk that AMD is impacting water quality.

In at least one case, the national government has been slow to react even when aware of the risks from AMD. In 2012, the High Court of South Africa directed the Albert Luthuli Local Municipality, one of Mpumalanga’s 17 municipalities, to take action to tackle a water crisis in the town of Carolina. In Carolina, municipal infrastructure had become severely corroded from AMD and left water in the town unsafe for human consumption. Residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch in 2021 pointed out that little had changed following the 2012 judgement. Residents complained of upset stomachs and other health problems, which they believe is due to, and is consistent with consumption of, contaminated water.

Residents described other risks from unrehabilitated mines, including the spontaneous combustion of exposed coal seams that can cause injury and further air pollution, and structures built over abandoned coal mines sinking and subsiding.

Based on a review of documents and data from the South African government, reports from Parliamentary meetings, research by South African NGOs, academic papers, and interviews with 34 community members living in the vicinity of abandoned mines or working as artisanal miners, in particular in and around Ermelo, this report describes the human rights risks posed by unrehabilitated coal mines in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province.

So far, the South African government has not taken adequate steps to ensure coal mining companies rehabilitate mine sites despite the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) requiring companies to do so. Improper assessments of future cleanup costs by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) and a systemic lack of enforcement have left residents of communities across the country – not coal companies – bearing the cost of coal extraction. Underscoring the lack of enforcement, 103 mines were operating without the required water use licenses as of July 2014. Water use licenses are essential because they are the main mechanism used by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) to assess and mitigate, including through rehabilitation, the impacts of an operation on water users and on surrounding water resources, including groundwater. Just six enforcement actions were taken on these 103 mine sites and no criminal prosecutions resulted.

Future cleanup costs required to be set aside by companies rarely cover actual costs of rehabilitation and are rarely updated annually despite a legislated requirement to do so. For example, as part of the 2005 mining authorization for its Ermelo coal mine, Imbabala Coal (Pty) submitted a financial provision of just R600,000 (approximately US$92,000) to cover the costs of rehabilitation. Following a 2019 community-led campaign to address the legacy of the unrehabilitated coal mine that ceased operations in 2011, DMRE assessed the cost of remediation at R450 million (US$31 million), 750 times the amount DMRE had received 14 years earlier as security.

The national government’s lack of action in tackling the many unrehabilitated coal mines and other coal infrastructure in Mpumalanga and other locations across South Africa poses risks for the residents of those communities. Of the 445 closure certificates – which indicate rehabilitation has been completed to government satisfaction – issued country-wide between 2011 and 2016, only six were in Mpumalanga. None of the six were for coal mines, despite Mpumalanga having nearly 800 abandoned mines as of 2019 (and 235 active coal mines). Potentially toxic tailings, essentially waste rock from mining, are often found near the abandoned mines. Mining sites are often easily accessed by residents and are deep and dangerous and often filled with water. The central government has done little to ensure sites are secured, let alone cleaned up.

Prior to 2002, before parliament passed the MPRDA, there did not exist a legal requirement to clean up mines in South Africa. Since then, weak enforcement of the legislation has meant, in practice, few steps have been taken to rehabilitate mines. Costs of proper mine rehabilitation are usually significant, sometimes tens of millions of US dollars, particularly in locations that are acid-bearing. The need to clean up a mining site is most evident after the mining companies have exhausted almost all the easily-extracted ore, and so there is little financial incentive for companies to incur what they consider an additional cost, especially because legislation requiring clean ups is rarely, if ever, enforced.

This needs to change. The government should ensure mines are rehabilitated to the level required by law and that the costs of the cleanup are borne by the mining company. By also ensuring that companies have to pay the real cost of coal extraction, rather than communities de facto subsidizing the cost, coal will become less appealing as an energy source versus cleaner and lower emitting sources of energy.

Mpumalanga residents described receiving no information from local, provincial, or national governments about the risks posed by unrehabilitated mines. Residents did not have access to even basic information needed to understand the health risks including on water quality, extent of accidents, or the location of abandoned mines.

The 2000 Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) has, on paper, improved information accessibility for civil society and others seeking better access to government information ; in practice, however, information requests are subject to significant delays, with information received often incomplete or fragmented. Human Rights Watch filed four PAIA submissions asking for basic information related to water quality, abandoned mines, and deaths on unrehabilitated mine sites, none of which came back within the legislated time. Basic information that should be publicly available on government websites even without the need for PAIA submissions, such as water quality data or abandoned mine locations, was incomplete or missing with no explanation or justification.

Coal is one of the most widely used fossil fuels in the world today ; it is also the most polluting. The use of coal as an energy source has significant health consequences for communities that live near coal mines and powerplants, as these coal developments release pollutants including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and heavy metals – all of which can contaminate communities’ air and water sources. At the global level, coal burning is a major factor contributing to the climate crisis, as it accounts for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

South Africa’s experiences with mine rehabilitation provide important lessons for other countries whose coal industries will progressively close as the world moves away from this dirty fuel source. There is growing debate in South Africa and internationally about how a “just transition” can ensure that as economies shift from one based on fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy, fossil fuel workers are retrained, retooled, and ready for new jobs. This is important, but little to no attention is given to the physical mine sites themselves and the toxic legacy they leave behind. The risks described to Human Rights Watch by those who live adjacent to coal mines underscore exactly why this subject is pressing and should be included in any “just transition” discussions or government strategies.

While the focus of this report is on coal, its findings are broadly applicable to South Africa’s other mineral sectors and for the over 6,000 abandoned mines in South Africa. Now is the time to ensure the lessons learned from coal mining, especially those related to the need for the full range of costs from mining development to be borne by the mining industry and not the communities living next to the mines, are applied to future mining activities. Demand for minerals to fuel the transition to clean energy is predicted to increase exponentially, and South Africa is one of a number of countries with significant mineral resources needed in that transition, including nearly 80 percent of the world’s manganese ore deposits, a key metal in lithium-ion batteries.

South Africa’s constitution recognises the right to a healthy environment. Other human rights, including the right to health, are enshrined in regional and international treaties, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These rights mean little in practice to the local communities who face the lasting legacies of the government’s inaction. South Africa has an opportunity to change course by protecting the rights of people and communities living adjacent to old and unrehabilitated coal mines.

South Africa’s government should ensure that companies provide adequate financial security to DMRE for the full cost of coal mine rehabilitation before mining commences, that those funds are used to clean up mine sites after mining stops, and that companies which fail to do so are held to account. Authorities should develop and implement a comprehensive program of rehabilitation of abandoned mines. Recognizing the need to tackle the abandoned mine problem, the Minister of Minerals and Energy published a draft National Mine Closure Strategy in May 2021 and draft financial provisions for mine rehabilitation. Yet to be passed, these are important, albeit long overdue, initial steps toward addressing the legacy of unrehabilitated mines and ensuring the safety, socio-economic and environmental impacts of mine closures are managed in a more integrated way.