The Trickle-Down Effect

In a water-scarce country like South Africa, meeting environmental demands and attracting new mining investment is a trickier-than-ever balancing act.

South Africa has recently experienced water crises in several regions of the country, which clearly highlights the importance of protecting groundwater resources. At the same time, mining remains an important sector to the SA economy, which means we need to find a way to both safeguard the environment and to maintain a competitive mining sector that is able to promote growth, employment and improved living standards.

Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, points out that while the mining industry uses a small percentage of water for its operations, its impact on the quality of water is an area of concern. This is particularly true of Category A mines, which are those that mine coal and gold.

“Acid mine drainage (AMD) and related mine water impacts have in the past decade evolved to become a major environmental challenge. While the challenge is limited to the mining sector during operations, it eventually becomes externalised during mining downturn, and is especially pertinent post-mining closure, especially if mine closure does not proceed according to regulatory-approved recommendations,” she says.

“AMD contains the most concentrated salt stream which has a significant impact on our water resources, since expensive water from the Lesotho Highlands has to be released to dilute the high salinity of the water in the Integrated Vaal River System. This is the only way to render the water fit for use.”

Working together

Sharon Meyer-Douglas, environmental marketing manager at GCS Water & Environmental Consultants, points out that if we are to solve the environmental challenges relating to mines, it is essential to have co-operation between the environmentalists, the mines and the government. Communication and exchange of information will facilitate better overall management of mining impacts on the environment.

“Constant discussions are crucial, as it will ultimately be about compromises, such as where the breaking point exists for a mine, in terms of its financials. It needs to be understood that some things are feasible, while others are not. While it is essential to implement strategies that protect the environment, it must be understood that South Africa needs to consider this in balance with the socio-economic benefits a project will offer to local communities,” she says.

“When it comes to protecting our water resources, there have been investigations into certain technologies that can help reduce the amount of water required by a mining or power generation operation, as well as the quality of water used – this means that mines could potentially use poorer-quality water sources, or recycled water from other industries. However, these technologies remain expensive.”

Authorities are taking a strong stance to protect water resources, she adds. On recent projects the Department of Water and Sanitation has stipulated that where there exists potential to reduce water utilisation within the mining environment, then the use of these technologies must be investigated. Furthermore, if they are not implemented, the mine should provide a good motivation as to why not.

“Moreover, such motivations should not necessarily be only financial in nature, since if it is not financially viable to minimise your water usage, then your project should not be deemed feasible overall, considering the cost to the environment and to water resources.”

Looking beyond our borders

Meyer-Douglas says there is a lot we can learn from elsewhere around the globe when it comes to environmental issues.

For example, she says, locally there has been a lot of effort put into the possibility of using ash for mine back-filling, something our current environmental legislation doesn’t necessarily support. However, new techniques developed overseas, and researched within South Africa, allow for the ash to be turned into a paste that hardens like cement. The alkalinity of the ash neutralises the threat of acid mine drainage, and this method of mine closure also seals access to old mines and helps to avoid subsidence in underground mining operations. In addition, the ash is then no longer disposed of above ground in facilities that pose risks to ground and surface water resources and sterilise large pieces of land.

This technique, she explains, is already being utilised in places like the US, China and Australia, so there is proof that it works, but our legislation still needs to adapt in order to encourage and manage sustainable and safe backfilling of our mines. This is an excellent example where authorities, proponents and environmental scientists should be working together towards a solution that benefits the environment.

“To this end, we reference case studies from these other countries, to help encourage government when it comes to redeveloping our own legislation around these matters. Unfortunately, success usually comes in increments – recently the law has changed so that ash users can now apply for an exemption to use ash for specific purposes. It’s not quite the change we were aiming for, but it is definitely progress.”

Meyer-Douglas points out that the International Association for Impact Assessment SA (IAIAsa) symposium, held on 17 August, had debated whether coal should remain within South Africa’s energy mix. One of the issues that the panel discussed at length was the fact that the coal mining industry provided substantial employment security, infrastructure development and had supported economic hubs within South Africa. Moving away from burning coal as an energy source will have a drastic impact on the socio-economic framework of the country and will be a very difficult transition, one that needs to be well planned and executed. The panel agreed unanimously that coal must be phased out, but this must be done while protecting those societies that are reliant on coal mining and power generation for their livelihoods.

“Ultimately, it is very difficult in these times of heightened awareness of environmental issues to strike a balance between the needs of nature and those of not only mining, but also the communities that rely on it. South Africa has a wealth of minerals and mining has always contributed significantly to our economy. There is no doubt that we do need new mining investment into SA to support economic development and employment, which are currently key economic and social challenges.

“The many obstacles to investment in SA mining relate to things like the ongoing cost of long-term environmental liabilities, the difficulty in remaining environmentally compliant, not to mention the social issues surrounding the mining industry. Thus the conundrum remains: how to attract new mining investment while at the same time promulgating and regulating responsible environmental management to effectively protect our natural resources,” she said.

Image: ©Sean Ripley
Image: ©Sean Ripley

You might be interested in these articles?