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(Johannesburg) – The South African government’s failure to ensure that abandoned coal mines are rehabilitated puts communities at risk of injury and death and risks polluting resident’s water sources, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 45-page report, “The Forever Mines: Perpetual Rights Risks from Unrehabilitated Coal Mines in Mpumalanga, South Africa,” documents the threats to communities from coal mines in Mpumalanga province that have not been properly cleaned up. Human Rights Watch found that the government has failed to make progress on addressing the dangers of abandoned coal mines, and that the industry, through its inaction, has created ongoing problems that affect communities’ safety and health.

“South Africa’s government has done almost nothing to address the toxic legacy that coal mining has on communities living near abandoned mines,” said Vuyisile Ncube, Finberg fellow in the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure that mining companies that profited from years of mining coal do not avoid their responsibilities to clean up the toxic mess they have left behind.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 34 community members, artisanal miners, health workers, members of civil society, and local government officials and analyzed documents and data from the South African government, nongovernmental organizations, and academic sources.

Across the country, only 27 mines (all mining asbestos) of the 2,322 classified as “high-risk,” including coal mines, have been cleaned up since 2009, South Africa’s auditor general reported in 2021. Abandoned coal mines often leach highly acidic water that can pollute water sources, and unsecured mines pose an ongoing risk of accidents. Relatives of two 14- and 17-year-old boys who drowned in an abandoned mine shaft described to Human Rights Watch how easily accessible open mine pits and shafts fill with water, putting people at risk of injury or death from accidents.

Unrehabilitated mines risk polluting water of millions of South Africans, as mine waste left exposed to the elements can dramatically increase the acidity of water and soil in many parts of South Africa. Known as acid mine drainage, it can leave water unusable and the soil unproductive, and corrode municipal infrastructure used for water delivery.

Almost 10 years after a 2012 High Court decision directed various levels of government to address the acid mine drainage crisis in the town of Carolina, Mpumalanga, residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch in 2021 indicated that little had changed. Residents described upset stomachs and other health problems that they believe are due to contaminated water.

“The ongoing water crisis in Carolina underscores both the potential impacts of unchecked acid mine drainage but also the lack of government attention to these issues,” Ncube said. “Even when the government was directed by the court to address poor water quality it hasn’t done so. South Africa’s communities deserve better.”

Improper assessments of future cleanup costs by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy combined with a systemic lack of enforcement has left residents of communities, not coal companies, bearing the cost of rehabilitation after coal extraction.

Costs of proper mine rehabilitation are usually significant, sometimes tens of millions of US dollars, particularly in locations where acid mine drainage is a risk, as in Mpumalanga. Cleanups would typically occur after mining companies have exhausted almost all the easily extracted ore, leaving little financial incentive to incur what companies would consider an additional cost, especially because laws requiring cleanups are rarely, if ever, enforced in South Africa.

Mpumalanga residents said they had received no information from the local, provincial, or national governments about the risks unrehabilitated mines pose, and basic information such as water quality data or abandoned mine locations that would give civil society and others a foundation for understanding the risk is not available from the government or is incomplete. Human Rights Watch filed four access to information requests seeking information on unrehabilitated mines, none of which came back within the legislated time of 30 days.

The tens of thousands of zama zamas (artisanal miners), who mine in waste rock or at abandoned mines, are at particular risk. Some zama zamas described tunnel collapses, suffocation, and other accidents that befell many of their colleagues to Human Rights Watch. An analysis of South African English-language media coverage between 2012 and 2015 found reports of 312 deaths of zama zamas. At least 150 reportedly died because of collapsed tunnels, gas poisoning, suffocation, and explosives accidents. The rehabilitation of mines could provide sustainable employment for many of these workers without the risks that artisanal mining entails, Human Rights Watch said.

Globally, coal is one of the highest-emitting and most widely used fossil fuels in the world today; it is also the most polluting. Coal emissions can lead to significant health consequences for communities near mines or power plants as a result of polluted air, water, and soil. To limit the impacts of the climate crisis, countries need to urgently transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. But as part of that transition, it is vital to clean up coal mines and other fossil fuel infrastructure properly to limit ongoing risks to the rights of residents, Human Rights Watch said.

South Africa’s government should ensure that companies provide adequate financial security for the full cost of coal mine rehabilitation, that those funds are used to clean up mine sites after mining stops, and that companies that fail to do so are held to account.

“There are hundreds of unrehabilitated coal mines among the over 6,000 mines in South Africa that need to be cleaned up,” Ncube said. “The government has a responsibility to ensure that communities don’t suffer from these ‘forever mines.’ It should take urgent steps to ensure adequate rehabilitation of the land by mining companies.”


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