After intensive mining since the 1880s, Johannesburg and its surrounding areas are littered with enormous underground mined-out caverns that have become flooded, while waste dumps resemble vast sand dunes. File picture: Ints Kalnins

Johannesburg - The failure of South Africa and the organs of state to enforce legislation was against the country’s constitution and international laws, a study by the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic found.

The report - Cost of Gold: Environmental, Health and Human Rights Consequences of Gold Mining in South Africa’s West and Central Rand - noted the slow response to the acid mine drainage (AMD) crisis delayed efforts to deal with the problem and allowed harm to continue.

Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, who worked closely with the researchers, said while they were not opposed to mining, it was concerning that there was a systemic failure by the government to implement legislation.

“We recognise that mining contributes significantly to the gross domestic product. Our call is, however, that state organs including the Department of Mineral Resources, the National Nuclear Regulator, Department of Water Affairs and Environmental Affairs enforce non-compliances with legislation,” she said.

The report said pollution of the region’s ground and surface water with AMD had implicated the rights to health, a healthy environment and water.

AMD is produced when water and oxygen mix with sulphides exposed by mining activities, and it contains elevated concentrations of heavy metals, which are in some cases radioactive.

Community members have indirectly ingested AMD, especially by eating vegetables irrigated with the polluted water, meat from cattle that have drunk from local waterways and fish from contaminated water.

Partially treated

In recent years, the government had pumped and partially treated AMD, but this positive step was overdue and a more complete solution had been wanting, the report said.

It said, however, credit should be given to the government for a treatment facility that came online in 2014 to prevent AMD from decanting, or reaching the surface, in the Central Rand.

The treatment plants had fallen short of a complete solution because they had only neutralised the water, leaving high concentrations of sulphates and other salts that could cause acute health effects and make water unsuitable for such activities as drinking, bathing, washing clothes and watering livestock.

There were more than 200 such waste dumps, known as “tailings dams”, in Johannesburg, and like AMD, they contained elevated concentrations of heavy metals, including radioactive uranium.

The report said while the government had been dealing primarily with AMD created beneath the surface of the West and Central Rand, it should also address other sources of AMD, including run-off and seepage.

The report noted that the government should take responsibility for remedying past neglect.

“It also needs to allocate necessary financial resources and ensure timely implementation of a more complete solution. By taking these steps, South Africa could better meet its obligations under human rights law and help the residents of the West and Central Rand enjoy their rights to health, a healthy environment and water,” the report said.

The Chamber of Mines said the issues raised by the report were complex. “That AMD exists and is a challenge is undisputed and is a legacy of the first 100 years of mining on and around the Wits and Central basins,” Chamber spokeswoman Charmane Russell said on Monday.

She said recently the quality of environmental management had improved as systems and technologies had been developed and the rigour of state regulation had intensified. “The challenge to the state, the industry and other stakeholders is to work together to deal with the legacy issues, including AMD.”