A study by an environmental rights group revealed coal mining companies in Mpumalanga did not comply with the conditions in their water licences. File picture: Reuters/Jason Lee
The Center for Environmental Rights (CER) has painted a dismal picture of gross violations and water pollution by eight large coal-mining houses in Mpumalanga when it comes to compliance to their water-use licences coupled with massive failures by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and independent auditors.

In a report published yesterday titled “Full disclosure: the truth about Mpumalanga coal mines’ failure to comply with their water-use licences”, the CER raised red flags of a regulatory system, from the issuance of a water-use licence to accountability for compliance that has effectively disintegrated.

“The outcome of our assessment paints a dismal picture of licence holders not taking their water-use licence conditions seriously and multiple regulatory failures that start with the delay in the issuance of the water use licences, which often results in the illegal commencement of water use,” said the report.

The study was conducted on coal operations along the Upper Olifants River containing the Olifants River, Klein-Olifants River and Wilge River that drain into the Loskop Dam. The Loskop River has more than 650 active and abandoned mines and associated acid mine drainage.

“Based on the findings of this report, it is evident that various institutions and actors must be challenged to reform the way water is regulated and used in South Africa,” it said, adding South Africa faced a grave crisis in relation to its water resources.

“We therefore call on legislators, regulators, industry, financiers and investors to use their spheres of influence to take immediate action for meaningful reform,” the report said.

Glencore’s Tweefontein South and Goedgevonden Colliery mines, Tshedza Mining Resources’ Manungu Colliery, Exxaro Resources’ Leeuwpan Coal Mine, South 32’s Khutala Colliery, Wescoal’s Vanggatfontein Colliery, Anglo American’s Isibonelo Colliery and Universal’s Kangala Colliery formed part of the study.

The study was based on audit reports from the companies, which the CER interrogated and then wrote to the operating companies for comment to various audit findings.

“Instead of ensuring the protection and preservation of our most precious and life-giving resource, companies and supposedly independent environmental auditors are complicit in taking advantage of the regulatory breakdown,” the report said.

Anglo American Coal yesterday noted the release of the CER report on compliance to water-use licences.

“Anglo American Coal co-operated fully with the CER by granting them the relevant information they requested. We will study the details of the report and will comment further in due course,” said Anglo American Coal.

Exxaro said it had received the report and was studying it. “Exxaro will respond in more detail once it has had the opportunity to review the findings related to Exxaro and recommendations made by CER.”

The CER was damning about the DWS, saying it was unable to issue licences with appropriate conditions within a reasonable time, resulting in the companies proceeding without authorisation and on their own terms, without any regulatory oversight.

The DWS reportedly has only 35 compliance and enforcement officials for the whole country, with the 2016/17 National Environmental Compliance and Enforcement report highlighting that the department failed to undertake meaningful enforcement action against offenders.

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