Poor monitoring of mine closure and rehabilitation initiatives in South Africa results in social and environmental concerns in mined out areas that have long term significant consequences. Is a radical approach required to address this appropriately?
Worldwide, the slow recovery of the commodities market has rendered operations financially stressed or unsustainable. This has led to an increase in reports of pre-mature mine closures. Noticeably, in response to this development, many regulators are paying more attention to mine closure and rehabilitation strategies.
South African regulators and society at large have raised concern about abandoned and derelict mines over the last decade. Some evidence to this can be seen in the establishment of the Southern African Land Rehabilitation Society (LaRSSA) in 2012 (a multi-disciplinary platform of regulators and industry) that is currently updating the coal mining rehabilitation guideline (2018) to improve operational level “know-how” so that rehabilitation is more successful. The publication of the NEMA (National Environmental Management Act) financial provision regulations in 2015 by Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) with amendments being processed now (2018) shows an increase in regulatory effort to address these concerns. The purpose of these regulations is to regulate how financial costs are determined for closure management during the life of the mine so that limited residual impacts will be evident post closure.
Other evidence of an increase in awareness is proponents taken to court for damage to the environment – forcing rehabilitation as required in legislation; the fracking regulations underway; the rejecting of the Barberton mine and NGO’s raising environmental concerns about social concerns; environmental concerns (specifically acid mine drainage) and industry setting up best practice tools to ensure better closure management of their operations in South Africa.
However, one may ask: Why are these efforts not resulting in concrete examples of good closure? Why do some mines still walk away and think there will be no consequences for the waste land they leave behind?
Chrizette Neethling, a veteran mine rehabilitation consultant and President of LaRSSA(2016), commends the level of commitment of regulators globally, but bemoans the state of affairs in South Africa. She is concerned that the regulators may not be carrying out oversight in the area of mine closure and rehabilitation as effectively as required.
Performance is a product of commitment and competence (K. Blanchard, 1986). Sadly, the commitment to ensure compliance at ground level and the competence to respond to industry and problems faced when a mine tries to implement closure result in poor closure performance in South Africa. The new regulations demand that DEA and DMR address both these issues within their ranks to change the way closure is managed in South Africa.
The cumulative upsurge in concern has already initiated change. Society at large and the legislation demand the same closure performance (evidence of commitment and competence) from mining operators, as from regulators, to have good closure performance in South Africa. This will require a more concentrated effort to blaze a trail and initiate change of attitude, performance and approach to rehabilitation monitoring. Wasteland is estimated at 15% of the country, and given the current controversy for productive land commentators have warned that the failure to address the issue of mine is a ticking time bomb.
Encouragingly, a recent development indicates a momentous shift. Regulators are now being taken to task for failure to perform their environmental duty – which is protecting the environment on behalf of all South Africans. The high court case of Earth Life Africa Versus the Department of Environmental Affairs & Others (2017) and the minister of water and environmental affairs v kloof conservancy Case No 106/2015 indicates a shift in what society is happy to accept from government.
Mine operator’s obligation
On the flipside, the onus is on mine operators to resource and implement mine closure and rehabilitation requirements. Neethling indicates that some companies do not understand the reputation damage; financial consequence; social and environmental long-term liabilities of closure. This is evident in their meagre allocation of resources and delay in taking early rehabilitation actions to address one of the biggest aspects of mining any operation has to address. Instead, she advises, mines to enhance in closure performance through resourcing technology and skills in the same way they do for mining. “Mines have to be aware that mine closure and rehabilitation is an inevitable exercise that cannot be wished away and does not take care of itself while mining is underway. It is more like a sleeping untrained Pitbull terrier that one day wakes up without a chain.”
To be more sustainable and effective, mine closure plans should include regulators and people of surrounding communities dependent on the land and the focus should shift from document control (making sure the mine has the plans according to legislation) to sustainable outcomes (implementing the plans and proving a return of land capability that is not wasteland). Neethling indicates that industry is prioritising the right issues, but not prioritising fixing the right issues early enough. “Mining companies must understand that South Africa is an Arid Country and any sustainable rehabilitation must be proven – given our rainfall patterns, you need many years to do this. If you use the most sustainable way to address dust affecting communities, i.e. vegetation cover for your closure design, you cannot start planting three years before you close – you need more time than this to prove sustainability before you walk away. The driver of the legislation (the Mineral Petroleum Resources Development Act 2002) states that mines cannot walk away with unproven sustainability and say you have tried. The legislation indicates that mines must rehabilitate the environment affected by mining operations to its natural or predetermined state or to a land use which conforms to sustainable development.”
The role of specialists
Consultants who are engaged by mines to advise on mine closure have an obligation to look beyond the scope of works they are assigned for. Even when the cost implications of what is really required is beyond the scope of what the mines had budgeted, the full scope of works of what needs to be done has to be highlighted as part of the process. Otherwise the consultant is an accomplice to bad mine closure.
Neethling also acknowledges that mine operators are inundated with various opinions, advice and approaches (like water and biodiversity) where they are not experts. South African Council for Natural Scientific Professionals (SACNASP) registration in the field of closure is important and LaRSSA is also trying to address this through indicating which closure specialists are recognised as specialist or associate members.
Closure can be seen as a cross disciplinary multi-faceted project where Risk, Legal, Cost, land management, safety, health, biodiversity and social issues all have to be integrated towards proper closure management. An iteration of Gap analysis and incorporation of efficiencies should take place throughout the closure project management.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Neethling believes that there is a promising light at the end of the tunnel. She asks the question: “Why is South Africa, as leading mining country in the past not taking the lead in finding the solution to rehabilitation of mines?”
Progress in other countries demonstrates that South Africa can lead the way in mine rehabilitation. Botswana’s policy now prioritises sustainable farming over short term mining where appropriate. Definitely, there should be no reason that South Africa, with a large body of knowledge and expertise in mining, cannot solve its issues. Australia – the leading agent for Mine Closure internationally, with similar conditions as South Africa, has proven that, with political will linked to academia and industry, national closure concerns can be addressed. There have been many case studies presented year-on-year since 2012 that show that South Africa has the potential to be the best in mine closure performance