1 The South African government’s failure to ensure that abandoned coal mines are rehabilitated puts communities at risk of injury and death, and risks contaminating residents’ water sources, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
3 The 45-page report, “The Forever Mines: Perpetual Rights Risks from Unrehabilitated Coal Mines in Mpumalanga, South Africa,” documents threats to communities from coal mines in Mpumalanga province that have not been properly cleaned up. Human Rights Watch found that the government has made no progress in addressing the dangers of abandoned coal mines and that the industry, through its inaction, has created ongoing problems that affect the safety and health of communities.
4 “The South African government has done next to nothing to address the toxic legacy that coal mining has on communities living near abandoned mines,” said Vuyisile Ncube, a Finberg Fellow in the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “The government must ensure that mining companies that benefited from years of coal mining do not shirk their responsibilities to clean up the toxic mess they have left behind.”
5 Human Rights Watch interviewed 34 community members, artisanal miners, health workers, members of civil society, and local government officials and reviewed documents and data from the South African government, nongovernmental organizations, and academic sources.
6 Across the country, only 27 mines (all asbestos mining) out of 2,322 classified as “high risk”, including coal mines, have been cleaned up since 2009, South Africa’s auditor general reported in 2021. Abandoned coal mines often leak highly acidic water that can contaminate water sources, and uninsured mines pose a constant risk of accidents. Relatives of two boys, ages 14 and 17, who drowned in an abandoned mine shaft described to Human Rights Watch how easily accessible open mine shafts and shafts fill with water, putting people at risk of injury or death from accidents.
7 Unremediated mines risk polluting the water of millions of South Africans, as mine waste left exposed to the elements can dramatically increase the acidity of water and soil in many parts of South Africa. Known as acid mine drainage, it can render water unusable and soil unproductive, and corrode municipal infrastructure used to supply water.
8 Nearly 10 years after a 2012 High Court decision ordered various levels of government to address the acid mine drainage crisis in the city of Carolina, Mpumalanga, residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch in 2021 indicated that little had been changed. Residents described upset stomachs and other health problems they believe are due to contaminated water.
9 “The current water crisis in Carolina underscores both the potential impacts of unchecked acid mine drainage and the government’s lack of attention to these issues,” Ncube said. “Even when the court ordered the government to address poor water quality, it has not done so. South African communities deserve better.”
10 Incorrect assessments of future cleanup costs by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, combined with a systemic lack of compliance, have left community residents, not coal companies, bearing the cost of rehabilitation. after coal extraction.
11 The costs of proper mine rehabilitation are often significant, sometimes in the tens of millions of US dollars, particularly in places where acid mine drainage is a risk, such as in Mpumalanga. Cleanups typically occur after mining companies have exhausted nearly all of the easily mined ore, leaving little financial incentive to incur what companies would consider additional cost, especially since laws requiring cleanups rarely, if ever, ever, apply in South Africa.
12 Residents of Mpumalanga said they had not received information from local, provincial or national governments about the risks posed by unremediated mines, and basic information such as water quality data or the locations of abandoned mines that would give civil society and others a basis for understanding the risk is not available from government or is incomplete. Human Rights Watch submitted four access to information requests seeking information on unremediated mines, none of which were returned within the legal 30-day deadline.
13 The tens of thousands of zama zamas (artisanal miners), extracting waste rock or in abandoned mines, are at particular risk. Some zama zamas described to Human Rights Watch tunnel collapses, suffocation, and other accidents suffered by many of their colleagues. An analysis of South African media coverage in English between 2012 and 2015 found reports of 312 zama zamas deaths. According to reports, at least 150 died due to collapsed tunnels, gas poisoning, suffocation and explosive accidents. Rehabilitating the mines could provide sustainable employment for many of these workers without the risks associated with artisanal mining, Human Rights Watch said.
14 Globally, coal is one of the highest emitting and most widely used fossil fuels in the world today; It is also the most polluting. Coal emissions can have significant health consequences for communities near mines or power plants as a result of air, water and soil pollution. To limit the impacts of the climate crisis, countries must urgently transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. But as part of that transition, it is vital to properly clean coal mines and other fossil fuel infrastructure to limit ongoing risks to residents’ rights, Human Rights Watch said.
15 The South African government must ensure that companies provide adequate financial security to cover the full cost of remediating coal mines, that these funds are used to clean up mine sites after mining stops, and that companies that they do not render accounts.
16 “There are hundreds of unrehabilitated coal mines among the more than 6,000 mines in South Africa that need to be cleaned up,” Ncube said. “The government has a responsibility to ensure that communities do not suffer from these ‘eternal mines.’ It must take urgent action to ensure the proper rehabilitation of the land by the mining companies.”