The single most destructive impact of mining is on the environment. Mine waste is still the largest source of pollution in South Africa and the country is one of the world's largest emitters of CO2 in terms of population size. Furthermore the impact old coal fields poses on our scarce water supplies as a result of contamination due to heavy metals seeping into water resources, has reached epic proportions.
"This week we marked World Environment Day, yet we are still faced with the stark reality that acid mine drainage impacts everyone, from rural communities and farmers to urban residents," says John Capel, executive director of the Bench Marks Foundation. "Our rivers and streams throughout the country are under severe stress as a result of mining and industrial activities and have been this way for a very long time. The recent reports that water engineers are frantically working on the overflowing acid mine drainage in the Witwatersrand's western basin and other articles on this subject come as no surprise to us.
"Unfortunately there are too many loop-holes in legislation governing the mining sector. Mining corporations are not held accountable for many of the costs that their operations impose on society. The line between what is their responsibility and what is not, is still very unclear. Generally many of these costs are borne by the state and by tax payers while local communities suffer air quality and water contamination."
Capel says that recent reports of blackmail and of uncooperative mining houses is something the organisation has also experienced throughout the years that it has been doing research. In addition, the involvement of current and former government officials as shareholders, board members or managers in mining companies is an added problem and presents a whole set of complications and tensions of its own.
Nationally and indeed globally, there has been pressure on mining corporations to be more accountable and transparent about their actions in the communities they operate. Capel says that regrettably, some companies still 'confuse' corporate social responsibility (CSR) with philanthropy and/or hand-outs to communities. CSR is really about responsible business practices, ethical profit -making and fair distribution of wealth.
"All activities of a company should have a positive impact on all stakeholders especially those most oppressed and exploited. That is true CSR," says Capel. "Even though there is no single CSR standard, mining companies should adhere to ethical performance standards and not put profits before people, the planet and the general well-being of others. This will have a large number of benefits for their company as well as for the communities within which they operate.
"We can only hope that the capacity of the Department of Minerals and Energy to monitor, oversee and regulate the industry is increased really soon, as the current incapacity is leading to the systematic destruction of the environment in general and of both ground and surface water resources in large parts of our country," he concludes.