Eco laws get tougher, directors to be held culpable

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Recent developments in the enforcement of our country’s environmental laws are likely to see directors place greater emphasis on their company’s environmental management systems and result in improved ecological monitoring and compliance.

The past few years have seen the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) placing more emphasis on the prosecution of environmental offences, with a number of significant and forceful judgments being handed down by our courts.

In the matter of S v Frylinck (2011), an environmental assessment practitioner was held criminally liable for providing incorrect and misleading information in a basic environmental impact assessment report (BAR) to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).

The facts were briefly as follows: Frylinck, an environmental assessment practitioner (EAP) employed by Mpofu Environmental Solutions CC, was appointed by the Department of Public Works to conduct a BAR for the proposed development of the Pan African Parliament buildings.

The EIA Regulations require, inter alia, that the practitioner must be independent [3] (and must declare such independence under oath) and further provide that the furnishing of any incorrect or misleading information in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process is a criminal offence.

In the basic assessment report, Frylinck indicated that there was no wetland present within a 500m radius of the site and had informed the relevant officer at the department that a wetland delineation study was not necessary. However, once construction had begun, concerns were raised by national and local government departments regarding the existence of a wetland on the site. An investigation was initiated and its presence in the area was confirmed.

Frylinck was charged with fraud and a contravention of regulation 81 of the 2006 EIA Regulations under the National Environment Management Authority (Nema). He was acquitted on the fraud charge but convicted on the latter.

The court held that Frylinck’s conduct proved wilful disregard of the required standard of conduct by an EAP in relation to the existence of a wetland on the site, and that the practitioner was negligent. The information contained in the BAR was incorrect and the EAP had therefore provided incorrect or misleading information to the competent authority. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of R80 000 and his firm was sentenced to a fine of R80 000, with half of the fines being suspended for five years.

Frylinck’s conviction highlights the important role that the EAP plays in the EIA process and the need for the practitioner to ensure that he/she presents accurate information in the EIA process and to understand the extent of his or her legal duties under Nema and the regulations promulgated thereunder.

Since Frylinck, the NPA’s focus has shifted to the conduct of company directors and the scope for personal criminal liability for environmental degradation caused on their watch.

More recently, the landmark case of Blue Platinum Ventures (2013) has reflected the direction that environmental enforcement in South Africa will take. The matter arose out of the clay mining firm’s activities conducted outside the village of Batlhabine in Limpopo since 2007, which resulted in environmental degradation. Numerous complaints were lodged by the affected community to the Department of Mineral Resources over the years without any decisive action being taken.

When the activities continued, the community laid criminal charges against the mining company and its managing director, Matome Maponya, in terms of Nema. Maponya was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for damages caused to the environment. This sentence was suspended for five years, on condition the affected areas were rehabilitated within three months, with costs estimated at R6.8 million. Maponya was not given the option of a fine.

The case is the first in South Africa where an executive of an offending company was held criminally liable and sentenced without the option of a fine under Nema for environmental offences relating to mining activities undertaken.

This judgment will result in executives paying more attention to the conduct of their employees and the risk of damage to the environment caused by their activities. It is also likely to see executives placing greater emphasis on having environmental management systems in place and ensuring they are strictly monitored and enforced.

The Blue Platinum prosecution and sentence has set a significant precedent for future prosecutions of environmental offences and will empower affected communities to lay criminal charges against offending companies and their directors for environmental damage. It has also shown that the willingness of the courts to impose more forceful criminal sanctions for environmental offences, including on directors in their personal capacities without the option of a fine.

These cases indicate that the courts are prepared to pierce the corporate veil.

Having appropriate training and operating systems in place to investigate and prosecute cases involving environmental offences is key to bringing offenders to justice.

The mandate and powers granted to environmental management inspectors (EMIs) under Nema are far-reaching and forceful. This is an indication of the legislator’s intentions to strictly enforce environmental compliance.

These powers range from arrest and detention to attachment of goods and the forced closure of a facility that does not comply with environmental laws or is causing significant environmental degradation. However, these tools are only effective as a deterrent if they are consistently and successfully enforced by the NPA.

The department has embarked on various training and capacity-building initiatives over the last 10 years, aimed at ensuring all environmental enforcement actions are legally defensible and to ensure that EMIs are trained to properly investigate. Training and capacity building also focuses on non-EMIs in the investigation and prosecution of environmental offences. This training is extended to magistrates and prosecutors through field training, specialised training and short courses.

The department has also collaborated with the NPA and has certain co-operation agreements and standard operating procedures in place to ensure the improvement of investigation and prosecution of environmental offences, and to ensure that there are proper lines of communication with the police and the NPA.

Importantly, there is also a need to inform and educate the public – particularly the rural communities, which are most often affected by environmental degradation – of their right to lay complaints against companies that cause ecological harm.

Ideally, South Africa should have specialised green courts to prosecute environmental offences. The original Green Court, in Hermanus in the Western Cape, had a dedicated environmental prosecutor and a conviction rate of more than 80 percent before it was disbanded.

South Africa is one of the few countries that guarantees the right to a healthy environment as one of its citizens’ basic human rights. The country’s environmental laws contain some of the strictest criminal and civil sanctions for environmental noncompliance and degradation in the world, including sanctions in respect of personal liability for directors, as discussed above.

However, South African courts have significant capacity constraints, not unlike many other jurisdictions in the world. This, coupled with a lack of experience and training in the prosecution of environmental crimes among prosecutors and magistrates, has in the past created an obstacle to the successful prosecution of environmental crimes.

Although still relatively new by global standards, South Africa’s EMIs are some of the best trained in the world. The inspectorate is steadily increasing its capacity to investigate environmental offences more consistently. It has trained over 224 officials, magistrates and prosecutors over the last few years.

The recent trend by affected communities to lay criminal charges for environmental degradation by companies which has seen courts imposing stricter criminal sanctions, including personal liability for directors, is a game changer on numerous levels. Companies and their directors will ensure that their environmental management systems are improved and are properly monitored and enforced.

There is likely to be an increase in directors and officers insurance cover for environmental degradation and banks and financiers are likely to impose far stricter lending criteria – which place greater emphasis on the risks of environmental degradation and the history of contamination and degradation by a company.

* Justin Truter is a director at Werksmans Attorneys.


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