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Companies ‘buy themselves out of criminal prosecution’ for environmental infractions

04 November 2015 - 12:10 By Katharine Child
AT THE COALFACE: Much of the coal mined by workers such as these is exported from the Richards Bay Coal Terminal in which Cyril Ramaphosa and Glencore Xstrata have stakes.
AT THE COALFACE: Much of the coal mined by workers such as these is exported from the Richards Bay Coal Terminal in which Cyril Ramaphosa and Glencore Xstrata have stakes.

Companies are paying fines for environmental infractions rather than obeying the law.

The Department of Environmental Affairs this week released its 2014/2015 National Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Report‚ which details the work of Green Scorpions‚ who investigate environmental crimes and inspect companies and manage nature reserves.

In the report‚ it emerged that companies paid R14-million in fines known as S24G applications‚ a figure 13% lower than fines paid the year before.

Centre for Environmental Rights executive director Melissa Fourie‚ said it appeared companies continue to pay fines “to buy themselves out of criminal prosecution”.

Companies in breach of certain environmental laws can pay a S24G fine.

Fourie explained that businesses may develop land without a costly or time-consuming environmental impact assessment process. When caught they pay a fine‚ but are not told to halt or reverse development.

She explained that provision for the S24 G fines in the National Environmental Management Act “undermines compliance by allowing companies to avoid the costs of proper environmental impact assessments” and instead pay a fine after the fact.

The fines also increased the Department of Environmental Affairs’ budget.

“The fact that these fines generated more than R14-million in ring-fenced‚ unallocated funds for environmental management inspectors also has the potential to incentivise departments to accept S24G applications and grant authorisations which otherwise should not be granted.”

A maximum fine of R5-million could be issued‚ which is “a lot of money” but it may not be too much if the project is worth far more than that‚ explained Fourie.

The centre praised the fact that the department had increased the number of environmental inspectors or Green Scorpions to almost 2300 from 1915.

But it noted that in Mpumalanga‚ where there are many coal mines that cause irreparable environmental damage‚ there were only 14 inspectors. The Western Cape has 72 and the Eastern Cape 52.

In 2014/15‚ inspectors in Mpumalanga registered only one criminal docket‚ despite reporting 62 incidents of non-compliance during inspections.

The centre also noted the majority of inspectors work in national parks as rangers rather than inspecting companies.

"A much smaller number available to do compliance-monitoring and enforcement of pollution‚ waste‚ marine and coastal and biodiversity matters‚" said Fourie.

But‚ on a positive note‚ the number of inspectors working in local government monitoring air quality increased 42 to 180.

Fourie said: “This is particularly important considering that functions like air quality monitoring and enforcement are the responsibility of local government‚ who are the first port of call for local communities affected by poor air quality”.

But the report noted that Free State and Northern Cape have no local inspectors and the Eastern Cape only has 3.

A department of statement said a total of 2889 facilities were inspected in 2014/15‚ which reflects an increase of 1.3% from the 2849 facilities inspected in 2013/14.

The total number of non-compliances detected during inspections has increased from 1539 to 2177 in 2014/15.