Coal mining

A group of environmental activists have submitted a strong call to action to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to improve poor coal mining regulation in South Africa.Non-profit environmental rights law clinic, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) notes that poor regulated coal mining and coal-fired power generation in South Africa (SA) are responsible for air and water pollution, destruction of arable land, biodiversity loss and violating the human rights of many communities.

These include their rights to life, health, water, food, culture and a healthy environment.

"Despite the human rights harms of mining and of coal-burning, the South African government is not enforcing the relevant environmental standards, and allows excessive pollution to continue," the CER said in a statement.

The government has also allowed the mining industry to be one of the least transparent industries in SA, however, this dire situation has increased public opposition to mining projects, it added.

"Tragically, the response has been a pattern of harassment and violence against opponents exercising their human rights to freedom of expression and assembly."

In March 2016, a culture of intimidation and violence around a proposed mine in the Eastern Cape led to the assassination of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, a leader of the opposition to the proposed mineral-sands mine near his community.

To date, no one has been brought to justice for this crime, the Centre notes.

These concerns form the basis of a submission made by a group of civil society organisations to the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) on Wednesday 5 October 2016, in preparation for its Universal Periodic Review of SA, which is set to take place in Geneva, in March 2017.

Entitled The threats to human rights from mining and coal-fired power production in South Africa, the submission was prepared by seven organisations working for environmental justice in the country, namely: groundWork, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the Highveld Environmental Justice Network, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Centre for Environmental Rights and Earthjustice.

Unique process

The Universal Periodic Review procedure reviews the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States once every four years.

It provides an opportunity for States to describe the actions they have taken to fullfil their international human rights obligations.

It also provides the opportunity for civil society and other UN Member States to raise concerns about a country’s human rights track record.

Upon completion of each review, the UN HRC provide recommendations for the State to implement.

Joint submission

The joint submission explains that mining often destroys arable land, leading to a decline in food security.

In Mpumalanga province, the heart of South Africa’s coal production and coal-fired power generation, 60% of the surface area is being mined or is subject to prospecting and mining rights applications.

Much of South Africa’s coal is burned domestically to produce electricity, mostly in power plants operated by Eskom.

Eskom’s power plants are some of the dirtiest in the world, continuously exceeding SA’s air pollution standards.

The plants release dozens of toxic substances into the air and water, causing massive health and environmental harms.

As with mining, these problems are particularly prevalent in Mpumalanga, where eleven coal-fired power stations operate, a twelfth is under construction, and three others are proposed – of which two have already received environmental authorisation.

Moreover, the environmental and human damage done by mining and by burning coal violates the human rights of many communities across SA.

Runoff from mines and spills from power plant waste ponds contaminate drinking and irrigation water with toxic pollutants, violating the rights to life, health, water, food and a healthy environment.

In addition, people living near mines and power plants breathe toxic pollutants that contribute to illness or death, violating their rights to life, a healthy environment, and health.

Pollution from mines destroys ecosystems on which communities rely for cultural and spiritual practices, and to sustain their livelihoods, violating their rights to culture and to an adequate standard of living.

These violations disproportionately impact poorest and most vulnerable communities, because they are frequently located close to mines and coal-fired power plants.

Despite the environmental and social harms of mining and of coal-burning, the South African government is not enforcing the relevant environmental standards. For example, in 2015, the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) assigned only five officials to ensure environmental compliance for over 1 000 operating and derelict mines in Mpumalanga.

The government also recently granted Eskom’s request to postpone compliance with air quality standards for most South African coal-fired power plants until at least 2020 and in many cases until 2025.

Stakeholder recommendations

The submission concludes with a strong call to action to the HRC to make the following recommendations to SA:

  • Prohibit mining in places, or using practices, that may violate human rights or cause substantial harm to the environment on which communities depend, prioritising the protection of strategic water source areas and protected areas;
  • Hold mining companies accountable for unlawful activities through a comprehensive and transparent compliance and enforcement programme, and an effective and transparent licensing appeals process;
  • Adopt a transparent and effective approach to disclosure of information related to mining, including through the mandatory and automatic disclosure of all documents related to the approval and regulation of mines;
  • Adopt and enforce laws ensuring that communities and other affected parties can meaningfully participate in all aspects of the mining authorisation process;
  • Immediately require coal-fired power plants to meet air emissions standards and to require Eskom to commence decommissioning those plants that cannot comply;
  • Protect community-defenders opposing mines from harassment and violence, investigate threats or acts of harassment or violence, hold those responsible to account, and provide an adequate remedy for victims; and
  • Implement a significant decline of existing coal-production and invest strongly in clean energy to provide for South Africa’s energy needs and to address the dire impacts of climate change.