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Law too soft on mining, say greens

According to proposed law amendments before Parliament, the minister of mineral resources will retain the power to approve new mining ventures in what has been described as a "separate but unequal" legal system which largely prevents the minister of environmental affairs from regulating the damaging effects of the mining industry. File photo: Reuters

According to proposed law amendments before Parliament, the minister of mineral resources will retain the power to approve new mining ventures in what has been described as a "separate but unequal" legal system which largely prevents the minister of environmental affairs from regulating the damaging effects of the mining industry. File photo: Reuters

Published Aug 20, 2013

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Durban - South Africa’s mining fox has refused to relinquish control of its private environmental henhouse and torn up previous agreements to be bound by the same environmental rules as all other industries.

According to proposed law amendments before Parliament, the minister of mineral resources will retain the power to approve new mining ventures in what has been described as a “separate but unequal” legal system which largely prevents the minister of environmental affairs from regulating the damaging effects of the mining industry.

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More than five years ago, the Mineral Resources Department agreed to end years of special treatment for the mining industry and to bring mining under the regulatory authority of the environment department.

But according to proposed changes to the National Environmental Management Laws Amendment Bill, the mining ministry would continue to control the environmental impact assessment process and give the green light to mining companies - although the environment minister will be granted a limited role in the environmental impact assessment process by acting as an appeals authority.

Johnny de Lange, chairman of the Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs, has now called for public comment on the controversial law amendments before September 13.

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Although final dates have not been announced, De Lange’s committee will also arrange public hearings where environmental groups and other interest groups are expected to renew their appeal for the mining industry to be regulated independently of the mining ministry. When the mining department began to back-track on previous agreements three years ago environmental law specialists Jeremy Ridl and Ed Couzens noted that the mining industry in South Africa was historically not subject to environmental impact assessment requirements as it was specifically exempted under the old regulations.

“This was extremely problematic, as it must surely be accepted that mining is an industry capable of doing immense environmental damage - it is a purely extractive industry, and can by no stretch of the imagination be described as a sustainable activity.”

Even if the environment minister was appointed as the final appeals authority, Ridl and Couzens noted that appeals were notoriously difficult to win as they relied heavily on procedural objections.

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Melissa Fourie, former head of the government’s Green Scorpions environmental management inspectorate, has also criticised the “ongoing special treatment” of the mining industry.

Fourie, who now directs the Centre for Environmental Rights, has welcomed compromise proposals to regulate the environmental impacts of mining in terms of the National Environmental Management Act, instead of under mining laws.

However, the new compromise was “far from ideal”, she said.

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There was an inherent conflict of interest in the “chief promoter of mining” having to take tough decisions to curtail or to refuse mining in the interests of the environment. - The Mercury

* Written comments on the proposed amendments can be emailed to De Lange’s committee via: [email protected]

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