Durban - The provincial government has been urged to tear up a recent “slap-on-the-wrist” fine for a Zululand coal mining company and to punish it with a new fine of at least R12 million for ignoring the country’s environmental laws.
Earlier this year, the Zululand Anthracite Colliery (ZAC) was fined R497 000 by the KZN Department of Environmental Affairs for establishing three new coal mining shafts near the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve without seeking environmental authorisation.
The Centre for Environmental Rights has now lodged a formal appeal against this fine with the province’s Economic and Environmental Affairs MEC, Mike Mabuyakhulu, arguing that the “inappropriately low” fine created a perverse incentive for other mining houses to simply pay low fines and disregard environmental laws. The colliery was bought by global mining giant Rio Tinto in 2011, but was owned by the Australian-based Riversdale Mining group when the illegal mines were dug between 2006 and 2010.
Nevertheless, Centre for Environmental Rights attorney Catherine Horsfield said it was “inconceivable” that managers of the colliery were not familiar with environmental laws regulating new mine shaft development.
In fact, there was evidence that the company had a history of non-compliance with mining and environmental laws.
“The only inference that can be drawn is that it decided, on three separate occasions, to completely ignore any environmental law requirements.”
Horsfield said the Department of Environmental Affairs seemed to have imposed a single, consolidated fine amounting to less than half a million rand, when it should have fined the company the maximum fine of R1 million for each of the 12 apparent transgressions.
“A maximum fine would create a pressing incentive for ZAC, its management and employees to ensure greater compliance with environmental legislation in future,” said Horsfield, noting that Rio Tinto was one of the largest companies in the world and could afford to pay such low fines.
Publicly available information suggested that ZAC made significant operating profits of around $10 million (R105m) to $15m annually during the years that the illegal mine shafts were developed.
In a separate media statement on Thursday, Horsfield described the R497 000 fine as a “mere slap on the wrist” and said her centre would call on the government to lay criminal charges against the company.
It was also not clear what factors were taken into account when imposing the fine, but civil society groups had not been consulted for their input.
Responding to requests for comment on Thursday, Rio Tinto media adviser Graham Witherspoon reissued a company statement prepared last month when The Mercury first reported on the illegal mining fine.
Witherspoon repeated that Rio Tinto was not the owner of the Zululand mine when the illegal mining began. In any event, the company believed that the R497 000 was “appropriate” in the circumstances.
The company also remained “committed to operating responsibly, lawfully and in full compliance with all government regulation”.
“There was an administrative oversight by the previous owner by failing to apply for additional environmental authorisations for some of our mining activities, required due to changes in legislation. Since discovering this, we have made an application to rectify this omission and have paid an administrative penalty - which we believe was appropriate,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Global Environmental Trust has also submitted an objection to the Department of Economic and Environmental Affairs, describing the “meagre” fine as a “travesty of justice”.
The trust, represented by attorney Kirsten Youens, said the fine raised questions about the ability of the department to fulfil its duty to safeguard the environment and local communities affected by mining.
“The message is that non-compliance with environmental legislation is easier, quicker and cheaper than compliance.”