09/05/2012 Minister Susan Shabangu: Department of Mineral Resources during the launch of the fuel cell powered locomotive in Rustenberg North West. Photo: Leon Nicholas

Iceland - Minerals Minister Susan Shabangu has been accused of deliberately dragging her feet to ensure that SA’s mining “fox” is left in charge of the country’s environmental hen-house.

Speaking at a recent conference in Iceland, David Fig of UCT questioned why SA remained trapped in an undemocratic industrial paradigm which gave primacy to its minerals and energy sector.

He noted that all major development proposals were subject to an EIA authorisation process regulated by the Department of Environment Affairs. The sole exception was the mining sector, which was exempt from the normal rules and governed by a less rigorous in-house approval process by the Department of Mineral Resources, whose main mandate was to promote mining.

Nevertheless, Fig said a ministerial agreement was reached in 2008 to transfer the EIA approval process for mining to the Environment Department in an 18-month handover. Fig said this was subject to the amendment of mining and environmental laws.

Whereas the Environment Department had swiftly complied by amending the National Environmental Management Act, the Mineral Resources Department had failed to amend mining legislation.

“It is not clear whether this lapse is due to administrative incompetence or strategic foot-dragging,” Fig told a meeting of the Nordic Sociology Association in Reykjavik.

“In terms of environmental and health impacts, there has been a steady watering down of public participation, seen as a brake on development.

“The mining industry has almost free range in operating in fragile buffer areas of World Heritage Sites or in the face of opposition from local communities.”

Fig said the industry’s continued exemption from the EIA process remained a concern, especially now that several multinational companies were hoping to exploit underground gas reservoirs by “fracking”.

In terms of current mining laws, the Petroleum Agency of SA had the simultaneous legal role of promoting and regulating the oil and gas industry. As a result of this conflict of interests, he had little confidence that “fracking” permits would be governed by a transparent and rules-based system which was independent of vested interests.

Because the agency was responsible for promoting and regulating the oil and gas industry, it was essential that the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Act should be amended to separate these powers.

Mineral Resources Department spokesman Zingaphi Jakuja said: “The agreements of departments consider national development priorities, while factoring important environmental impacts. Further engagements with ministers of respective departments has necessitated an integrated approach to licensing, which has been announced by both ministers in the recent past.

“Both departments are working to finalise the necessary integration and streamlining processes of mining and environmental licensing.” - The Mercury