Posted on: November 28, 2007 Posted by: Diane Swarts Comments: 0

South Africa. Environmentalists have set up a federation intended to take legal action against mining companies and South Africa’s government with regard to a number of areas they claim have been badly damaged by pollution.

“It’s for us to establish legal precedence and hold mining companies responsible,” says environmental activist Mariette Liefferink.

High-profile lawyer George Bizos is part of the federation’s steering committee.

Under South African law, directors can be held personally responsible for environmental damage.

“These principles haven’t been applied – and that’s the reason for the establishment of the federation,” Liefferink says. “The time has come to hold the mining industry responsible for the environmental damage they’ve caused – as well as Government for failing its mandate to protect the environment.”

The federation is made up of a range of players who want to ensure environmental integrity and sustainable development.

“It became apparent that the historical and present mining-related discharges of naturally occurring radioactive material into the Wonderspruit Catchment Area (WCA) has given rise to radioactive contamination of water bodies, sediments and soils in the WCA.” NNR report.

In 1991 it was estimated 12 tonnes/year of uranium entered the WCA in water discharged from mines. An estimated 24 tonnes of dissolved uranium is released into the environment from unlined tailings dumps alone. A further 10 tonnes of particle-bound uranium is thought to be blown off dumps and washed into the waterways by rainfall. There are more than 100,000 tonnes of uranium on dumps in the area.

Gold Fields led the establishment of a multi-stakeholder group – the Wonderfonteinspruit Action Group (WAG) – to address the matter. WAG has been incorporated into the catchment management forum, which monitors discharges into the waterway, says Willie Jacobsz, who heads sustainable development at Gold Fields.

Asked why gold companies appeared to be only taking action now, Jacobsz says: “As we’ve become aware of the problem and understanding it – as the academic community started understanding it – our activity and action in that regard grew. We operated within the regulations laid out in nuclear licences.

“As our understanding has grown we’ve seen that maybe some of those parameters prescribed by the State may have been inadequate.”

The impact of uranium on the public has been assessed for many years via the mechanism of the public hazard assessments required by the NNR since 1999. There’s a six-month sampling for the full suite of radionuclides in selected areas.

Article: Allan Seccombe
Posted: Wed, 21 Nov 2007