Major mining houses and established industry players are investing more time and energy in producing good environmental-impact assessments (EIAs) before embarking on a project, says environmental services provider Golder Associates integrated regulatory process manager Spencer Eckstein.
“Being a good corporate citizen involves complying with environmental legislation and environmental considerations, as well as conducting high-quality EIAs. This enables regulators to make the right decisions.
“However, the legislation surrounding EIAs is complex, and this can cause delays during the decision-making process, particularly if there are differ- ences of opinion or interpretation of the legislation between regulators,” notes Eckstein.
Both regulatory bodies and government departments must be consulted before a decision can be taken by the competent authority.
For example, if the consulting period of a project expires, owing to a government department not commenting in the prescribed period, it will delay the author-isation process and therefore extend the duration of the decision-making process, leading to greater costs being incurred by the company requiring the EIA approval.
More importantly, listed activities under the National Environmental Management Act may not start without authorisation. The Act also provides for severe sanctions, such as imprisonment not exceeding ten years or a fine not exceeding R5-million should the Act be contravened.
This escalation in cost throughout a project’s life cycle is to the detriment of environmental considerations and the EIA, says Eckstein.
He notes, however, that both regulators and businesses are getting better at interpreting the complex requirements for EIAs and are complying with them to a greater extent than before. The challenge, however, is the effectiveness and efficiency at which EIA decisions are being made, as well as strengthening the systems and capacity needed to enforce the legislation appropriately.
“Industry will benefit greatly by improving the turnaround times of government decisions,” states Eckstein.
EIAs regarding mining oper-ations and acid mine drainage (AMD) as a result thereof have also been increased.
Legislation Surrounding AMD
The key pieces of legislation governing AMD are the National Water Act, the National Environ-mental Management Act and the National Environmental Waste Management Act, read in conjunction with the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act.
Eckstein points out that there is sufficient legislation regarding AMD to protect the public while imposing obligations on mining com- panies to address mine water and mine waste issues.
However, the challenge lies in who should be held accountable for AMD, as well as the funding of a technical solution to deal with the problem, as AMD is a historical problem that has escalated into a serious environ- mental issue on the estern, central and eastern basins of the Witwatersrand goldfields.
It is public knowledge that South Africa’s Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, the implementation agency of the Department of Water Affairs (DWA), is currently carrying out a short-term project to address the problem of AMD on the goldfields, says Eckstein.
Polity recently reported that the DWA is in the process of undertaking a feasibility study to determine a long-term sustain- able solution to AMD, but it is not yet clear when that study will be finalised and what funding model will be incorporated.
Mines use large amounts of water in their mining operations, resulting in large amounts of wastewater being generated. Legislation highlights the scarcity of water resources in South Africa and identifies the need for water conservation and for water use to be correctly licensed and managed within industries.
The Anglo American eMalahleni water reclamation plant, in the Witbank coalfields, is an example of how mining companies can make an effort to conserve water through the establishment of water treat- ment plants on their premises to recycle and reuse water.
Mining Weekly previously reported that the plant operates at a 99% water recovery rate, with the goal of being a zero-waste facility through the use of its by-products. The plant prevents polluted mine water from being discharged into the environment and the local river system.
Mining operations are encouraged to introduce water treatment plants such as this, enabling the reuse and reinjection of clean water back into the water system.
There is a significant move towards improving the enforcement of environmental legislation in South Africa, as seen in the case in which the Western Cape’s Bergrivier municipality obtained a court interdict against Cape Town-based junior miner Bongani Minerals to prevent it from prospecting for tungsten and other minerals in an eco-logically sensitive area.