The latest “absurdly convoluted” changes to environmental laws, which came into effect earlier this month, appear to have put the mining fox firmly back in charge of the environmental henhouse.
The new amendments to laws that regulate the environmental impacts of the mining industry have sparked renewed criticism from several legal experts, who said that the changes had introduced a layer of legal confusion and uncertainty.
The Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town said that, rather than providing legal clarity, the government’s new “One Environmental System” could instead “pave the way for even more devastating environmental consequences as a result of the gaps and uncertainties in the law”.
Webber Wentzel attorneys interpreted the changes to mean that the Department of Mineral Affairs - not the Department of Environmental Affairs - would now retain the power to regulate environmental impacts of the mining industry.
Werksmans Attorneys also voiced criticism last month about the “perpetual lack of clarity” over laws regulating the mining industry’s environmental impacts.
On Tuesday, the Centre for Environmental Rights said: “The legislative process that has led to this point has been so absurdly convoluted and opaque that not even the government departments tasked with implementing the new regime appear able to make sense of the current state of law.”
It also called on the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Environmental Affairs to publish an explanatory memorandum as soon as possible to clarify the uncertainties.
The latest changes follow a “turf war” dating back to 2008, when the two departments agreed to a new system in which the environmental impacts of the mining industry - like all other industries - would be regulated by the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Under that agreement, the Minister of Environmental Affairs would gradually assume legal responsibility for environmental authorisation of all mining and prospecting applications.
However, after a five-year lag, a series of amendments to mining laws were introduced that appeared to entrench the power of the Minister of Mineral Resources.
Two months ago, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told Parliament that the new amendments were intended to “support and facilitate accelerated implementation of sustainable development”.
l Responding to requests for clarity, the Department of Environmental Affairs said that the new “One Environment System” to regulate the mining industry would only be implemented from December 8, when a complete new suite of supporting legislation would also take effect.