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Government must team up with mines to detox

Alan Brent and Tim Ewart | 2011-08-01 00:02:26.0

The threat of acid mine drainage is best neutralised through joint efforts by the public and private sectors, write Alan Brent and Tim Ewart

Acid mine drainage, the outflow of acidic water, usually from abandoned mines, is a classic example of a problem for which solutions must be found urgently in a collaborative way.

When a mine shaft is dug, oxygen, water and sulphur-oxidising bacteria are introduced into the ground. These elements oxidise minerals containing sulphur in the earth, creating sulphuric acid.

The parliamentary portfolio committee on water and the environment warned recently that acid mine drainage had reached "crisis point" on the Witwatersrand "because some mining companies allow untreated acid mine water to flow into streams, dams and sources of groundwater".

Many stakeholders have emerged, with varying concerns and solutions. While opinions differ, there is indisputable evidence that a threat to the environment, human wellbeing and the economy of the Witwatersrand region has been allowed to develop.

What seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship between the mining industry and the government has blurred the issue of who "owns" the problem.

It has also led to the slow introduction and poor enforcement of legislation, which could otherwise have gone a long way to curtailing the threat.

Also evident is a distinct lack of awareness of the environmental and social risks associated with acid mine drainage. This brings into question the decision-making processes used in the identification of potential solutions.

Unless consideration is given to all the dimensions of sustainability, the search for solutions will be futile. And all stakeholders - including the government, the mining industry, environmental and medical professionals and activists, as well as the public - must participate fully in a transdisciplinary assessment process to determine the extent of the threat and come up with appropriate counter measures.

Nevertheless, even if a comprehensive solution had been decided upon, its chances of success would be questionable as things stand. This is because government departments have a poor record as regulators and have been inconsistent in providing environmental protection.

While the stakeholders are not agreed on a solution, they agree that the source of the acid drainage problem is the mining industry. Interestingly, many stakeholders also believe that once treated, such drainage can be a future water resource.

The themes of the debate reflect the profiles of the different stakeholder groups. The mining industry's paradigm remains one of extraction at least possible costs. Government policy has been to support the industry, through preferential treatment. And medical and environmental professional and activists are concerned with environmental sustainability and social wellbeing.

The latter grouping wants urgent attention paid to the problem. They want the polluter pays principle enforced. In environmental law, this approach entails that the party responsible for producing pollution is responsible for paying for the damage done to the environment. It forms part of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil.

Independent stakeholders believe that mining companies have profited from the very practices that resulted in the development of the acid mine drainage threat in the first place.

However, they acknowledge that the establishment of direct ownership might prove difficult, and thus their attention is turning to the government to take up collaborative ownership with industry and address the problem. This is because the government is a beneficiary of mining, but also the ultimate authority.

All of this means that strong, joint leadership from both the public and private sectors will be necessary to address the challenge of acid mine drainage and unlock the opportunities that it holds.

  • Brent is a professor of sustainable development in the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University. Ewart is a researcher at the school's postgraduate sustainable development programme

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