The Mine Water Co-ordinating Group Show That There Is Life After Coal Mining
Despite this sentiment describing prevailing wisdom, there are a number of critics that are voicing a disenchantment with coal as a silver bullet for economic growth. In fact, research that was conducted by the Minerals Council of South Africa shows that the global drive towards lower carbon emissions and regulations addressing climate change may well scupper the plans of industrialists to continue liberally burning coal. The research report, in fact, sketches four future scenarios that may well challenge the supremacy of coal as the Ultimate of Energy Providers. One such scenario is called “coal extinguisher” and it describes coal as “slowly becoming obsolete as coal production declines at 0.5% per year.” Other challenges facing the coal industry are:
- Increasing conflicts with local communities that have not shared in the mining wealth
- Environmental, financial and reputational liabilities associated with mine closure, such as mountains of discard dumps and impacted fresh water
The second of these latter challenges is vexing to miners to say the least. Mine closure is a legislative imperative according to the Mineral Petroleum and Resources Development Act of 2002. As part of their closure plan, mining companies are required to rehabilitate the land that was disturbed to a pre-mining land state. This is usually done at a great cost to the company, but many times the land cannot or is not used productively to benefit the local community that was impacted during the many years of mining activities. Even after mine closure, there are many liabilities that the company remains responsible for.
Current practices are typically to defer rehabilitation and mine closure to reduce costs in the short-term, but this increases long-term financial liabilities. Water liabilities typically need to be managed into perpetuity which prevents most mining companies from obtaining closure certificates. Mine closure is an ideal opportunity to include social closure, which is sometimes tried, but doesn’t always work out. This is one source where conflicts with the community arise.
This then causes some key questions to emerge: what does life after coal look like? What happens when the coal mines and coal-fired power stations close? Are there alternative employment opportunities? What are the required skills for these alternative opportunities?
The Mine Water Coordinating Body (MWCB) was formed in June 2017 to encourage collaboration between public and private stakeholders to address some of these more pressing questions. As an off-shoot of the Strategic Water Partners Network, a Nepad Foundation programme, the MWCB, as a collaborative platform, was given the mandate – and funding – by Anglo American Coal, Exxaro, South 32, Glencore, Sasol and Eskom to find solutions to post-closure mining land, with a particular focus on the Upper Olifants Catchment in the Mpumalanga Coalfields, to address:
- environmental, social and economic challenges that could arise from scaling down of mining operations and finally mine closure;
- Long-term mine water management;
- Management of joint projects and initiatives.
The MWCB has adopted an approach called TheGreenEngine, which was developed by Anglo American Coal and is “A central, self-sustaining, agri-industrial hub that creates sustainable employment opportunities enabling local economic development, reduction of mine closure liabilities and secures a social licence to operate unlike current mine closure practices.”
The newly launched national programme called the Green Business Value Chain (GBVC), will add some value to The Green Engine, through beneficiation of invasive alien plant wood into agricultural input material, such as biochar or soil erosion blankets. Funded by the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Green Business Value Chain is a platform for catalysing markets for restoring land and securing livelihoods, and is the brainchild of development and training consultancy, Avocado Vision.
The purpose of the MCWG is to create a self-sustaining, integrated agri-industrial hub, using mine impacted land and mine water at a coal mine that is due for closure. Instead of the normal mine closure approach, the land can be better utilised to serve the local community through a regional industrial symbiosis and urban mining approach. The outcome is a regional partnership with key stakeholders, that not only serves the needs of the mine that is closing, but the community and businesses around it.
The high-level project objectives are to:
- Assist a coal mine with social mine closure, reduce the liabilities associated with rehabilitation and water, and improve community relations;
- Uplift the local community by sustaining and/or creating jobs with the required skills development;
- Create an agricultural industry to supply food to the local community and ultimately the broader community as well as bioenergy crops for energy generation;
- Treat mine impacted mine water to an appropriate quality to support agriculture;
- Provide low carbon energy to the community and other potential off-takers; and
- Create an industry to deal with waste, both on the impacted mine sites and other partners in the region. One’s waste becomes another’s resource!
Sustainable mine water re-use and rehabilitated land utilisation on a regional scale thus creates opportunities to develop secondary economies with significant community involvement post-mining, thereby addressing regional mine closure aspects and ensuring a positive legacy is created for life after mining.
For more information, visit: www.avovision.co.za.