Dineo Faku

COMMUNITIES living in Mpumalanga were angry and frustrated about the grave danger posed to their lives by coal mining, which jeopardised their water and food sources, the Bench Marks Foundation said in its latest mining sector report, released yesterday.

In its Policy Gap 9 report, entitled “South African Coal Mining: Corporate grievance mechanisms, community engagement concerns and mining impacts”, focusing on the operations of Anglo American Coal and BHP Billiton Energy Coal South Africa in Mpumalanga, the foundation said the lack of consultation by major mining houses was adding fuel to the fire of discontent.

The church-based NGO said communities around Anglo American Coal’s mines had lost confidence in the company because they had been ignored after lodging grievances about dust, contaminated water or cracked houses as a result of mining operations.

It recommended that an independent fund be created to which all mining companies would contribute so that communities could have access to the advice of legal and environmental experts.

This was because environmental impact assessment studies were scientific and communities had little grasp of the technical aspects of these studies, John Capel, the executive director at Bench Marks Foundation, explained at the release of the report.

“The level field has to be level so that communities can make informed decisions on whether they want mining on their land. Experts can help explain the long-term impact of mining so they don’t rely only on the promise of jobs by mining houses,” Capel added.

The report points to flaws in community engagements at both companies, which it says have been driven by philanthropy instead of the needs of the communities.

In other words, the companies assumed what was good for the communities and implemented their own projects, including building classrooms.

Consultation meetings were “half-hearted”, and there was often no feedback from the meetings. For example, there was heavy reliance on consultants to speak on behalf of communities.

“Communities perceive these consultancies as lacking in information, decision-making power and understanding in either mining or the local conditions,” the report says.

Anglo American Coal spokesman Moeketsi Mofokeng said yesterday that the company would have to study the report before it could comment.

The report also criticises BHP Billiton for adhering to Australia’s strict codes and global standards in that jurisdiction while it did not do the same in South Africa.

In Australia the company engages with communities directly and continuously, but it does not do the same in South Africa, it says.

Lulu Letlape, BHP Billiton SA’s spokeswoman, said the firm was studying the report and would provide a comprehensive response once it had reviewed the report in detail.

“At BHP Billiton, being environmentally responsible and supporting our communities form a key part of our values. We have embarked on a number of initiatives to ensure the environmental sustainability of our mines even after we stop operations,” Letlape said.

There are 6 000 abandoned mines in South Africa, spilling acid water and heavy metals into the environment, and over 140 are in Mpumalanga, the report says.

According to the report, these mines have been abandoned despite strict environmental and water legislation that requires mines to set aside funds to effect closure.

It also notes that the coal majors often sell off mines as they approach their end of life to juniors who do not have the resources and capacity to close such mines appropriately.