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Inaction on waste condemns South Africa's poor to life in toxic dumps

Written by  GEOFFREY YORK of The Globe and Mail Wednesday, 11 March 2015 18:36
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TUDOR SHAFT, SOUTH AFRICA — The Globe and Mail

For years, Patience Mjadu smeared her face with the yellow sludge from the mining dump near her shack. She had seen others do the same. According to local lore, the chemicals were a good cosmetic.

Today her face is damaged and she realizes that the sludge was toxic and radioactive. When the wind rises and the air fills with dust from the mine dump, her chest tightens and she has trouble breathing. The thin walls of her shack, riddled with holes, can’t keep out the toxic dust.

 

South Africa for decades was the world’s biggest gold producer, and most of it came from here: the goldfields around Johannesburg, where the gold rush began in 1886. But while the world consumed the gold from here, authorities have largely ignored the legacy of toxic mine waste, which piles up in hundreds of radioactive dumps and dams that contain uranium and other dangerous metals near the homes of more than a million people.

“We’re sick of living in this dangerous place,” says Ms. Mjadu, a 46-year-old mother of four children who has lived in the impoverished shack community of Tudor Shaft for nearly 20 years, just metres from the radioactive dump.

“It’s very dangerous for children. The soil isn’t good for us. We need to move – we’re getting sick.”

Studies have found radiation levels in Tudor Shaft up to 13 times above the regulatory limit. And this is far from an isolated case. An estimated 1.6 million people in mining districts around Johannesburg live within a few hundred metres of radioactive sites.

Many of the mines were abandoned by their owners and nobody takes responsibility for them. Scientists and official commissions have issued warnings for decades about the health risks, but the risks were neglected by South African governments during the apartheid era and even after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Those at greatest risk are the poorest of the poor. They live in shacks and can’t afford to move. Many are pleading with the government to move them to safer places, but only a few have been relocated.

“Those who didn’t share the benefits of the mining and didn’t contribute to the pollution are the ones who are paying the price,” says Mariette Liefferink, an environmental activist who has been trying to help the 1,800 people of Tudor Shaft for years. “If you don’t have money, you have no choice – you have to live there.”

Uranium and other potentially toxic metals are among the main byproducts of gold mining. But the residents who live closest to the dumps are victims of a jurisdictional dispute between local governments, the national environment department and a public agency – the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) – all of which deny their own responsibility and point their finger at others.

Ms. Liefferink served on the NNR’s board of directors for three years until resigning in 2012 to protest its inaction on the crisis. While she and the South African environment department have insisted that the NNR must take responsibility for removing the radioactive soil or relocating the people who live near the dumps, the NNR insists that South African government departments must be responsible.

“Because there is confusion, nobody takes action,” says Ms. Liefferink, who is chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.

In one of the main mining regions, the West Rand district near Johannesburg, more than 42 tonnes of dust from mine tailings enter the environment through wind and water every day, one study found. “The people who live downwind and downstream are poor black communities – it hasn’t changed much since apartheid,” Ms. Liefferink says.

Victor Tshivhase, a professor who heads the applied radiation science centre at North-West University in South Africa, took measurements of radiation levels in Tudor Shaft last year. He found that every measurement was at least twice the international limit for annual radiation exposure – and some were as much as 13 times the limit.

“In the case of Tudor Shaft informal settlement, residences are continuously exposed to high levels of radiation,” his study concluded. “It is therefore recommended that the residents be relocated to an alternative safe habitable area.”

Tudor Shaft’s residents have reported a range of illnesses, including skin lesions, eye infections and respiratory problems. They are exposed to toxic dust in the dry season and toxic water flowing from the dump in the rainy season. But there has never been a proper health assessment at the site, so they don’t know the exact link between their illnesses and the radioactive dump.

Tudor Shaft was created in 1996 when the local government forcibly relocated hundreds of people to this site from another informal settlement a few kilometres away.

“I remember it well because it was so terrible,” Ms. Mjadu says. “The government broke our houses and took us here in trucks. It was supposed to be temporary, but it’s been years and years.”

Environmentalists have tried to warn the residents about the radioactive dangers from the tailings dump, but it’s been a difficult task. Even today, the residents grow pumpkins and corn in small gardens on the dump. There is no fence to prevent children from playing in the radioactive waste.

“I come here, I tell them they live in a dangerous place, and then I have to leave,” Ms. Liefferink says. “It fills me with hopelessness. I feel anger and absolute disbelief that this place exists.”

In 2012, acting on advice from the NNR, the local government and a mining company began removing the Tudor Shaft waste dump. About half of the soil was removed, but environmentalists were alarmed that it was being done without risk-assessment studies or consultations, and they obtained a court order to suspend it. While the government relocated 14 families that were living on top of the waste dump, it ignored others who lived just a few metres away. Today the community remains in limbo, still exposed to the radiation threat.

Margaret Molefe, 45, moved here in 2008 because she was unemployed and the shacks were rent-free. But now she fears that the radioactive dump is poisoning her three-year-old son, Sipho.

The boy is tormented by constant itching. He scratches his skin, all over his body, day and night. His mother said it began when he was crawling in the soil of Tudor Shaft as an infant. She has taken him to several doctors without finding a cure.

“I’m very worried,” she says. “It’s going to damage his mind. He’ll be slow in learning, because he’s always scratching and he can’t concentrate on anything. At night he is talking and crying and scratching, even when he is sleeping.”

When she first moved to Tudor Shaft, she didn’t realize that it was dangerous. “But after four years, I realized it was no good. I hear the soil has chemicals in it. I want to take Sipho to a better life, but I can’t afford to move.”

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Notification of the Withdrawal of the Application of an Amendment of the Environmental Authorisation and Environmental Management Programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining Operation in Free State

The concerted efforts and submissions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the Applicant and its appointed Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) by the Protect Vaal Eden Committee, Vaal Eden community, and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have resulted in the withdrawal of the application of an amendment of the environmental authorisation and environmental management programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining operation adjacent to the Vaal River.  The EAP was notified by the DMRE that further specialist studies would be required to determine the impact the application for a screening plant and process would have on the environment and that a Regulation 31 amendment process, which involves a public participation process, must be undertaken.  The FSE welcomes the DMRE’s notification. Notification letter attached for download

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Mining activists in SA face death threats, intimidation and harassment - report

SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

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