by Miriam Mannak

Myth busting

Sustainable mining does exist

Fixing issues is vital for the survival of the mining industry.
mining pic .jpg
An enormous carbon footprint caused by a mind-boggling hunger for energy; environmental degradation due to acid mining drainage (AMD) and other waste matter and a plethora of social ills: South Africa’s mining industry is struggling with a bad reputation.While recent figures do not seem to be available, older statistics reveal that South Africa’s mining industry consumed 31 757 terawatt-hours in 1999 – some 18.4% of the country’s total energy usage in that year.

A 2004 draft of the government’s Energy Efficiency Strategy, published eight years ago, states that the industrial and mining sectors combined account for 47% of South Africa’s total energy consumption.
As the bulk of South Africa’s electricity is generated from coal, one can state that mining is responsible for a large part of our carbon footprint.

The energy restrictions that sprouted from the 2008 power crisis do not contribute much to improve South Africa’s carbon emission rate. Figures by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre which is the main climate-change data and information analysis institute of the United States Department of Energy, show that South Africa in 2008 emitted 435 878 000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide and stood at 445 800 000 metric tonnes in 2009.Both the South African government and the private sector have become aware of the impact of mining on our carbon footprint and climate change.

“The sector has to adapt to global challenges such as the full pricing of carbon and energy, on which the sector relies significantly,” said former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel during this year’s Mining Indaba. And, Mining Minister Susan Shabangu stressed in her opening address that, “Responsible mining cannot happen when the environmental impact of the industry is not properly managed,” adding that the working conditions of mineworkers need to be improved as well. 

According to Martin Kingston, CEO of investment banker Rothschild South Africa, mining companies have little choice but to take sustainability issues seriously – and not because it is “the right thing to do”. Cleaning up their act is vital for the future of mining and their business operations. In the 1970s, the industry accounted for 21% of South Africa’s gross national product and 660 000 jobs. Today, mining contributes 6% to the national GDP and provides 440 000 employment opportunities. Production and output have dropped as well.

Mining vs the 2008 Power Crisis
To deal with the situation, large power consumers including the mining industry were summoned to reduce their consumption, including Gold Fields and AngloGold Ashanti. The latter managed to cut its power usage by temporary stopping underground operations. 

“The unpredictability of the power supply meant the mines had become unsafe working environments,” explained engineering head Richard Mack in a statement at that time.
As a result, AngloGold Ashanti suffered a production loss of 270 000 gold ounces.Platinum firms were also forced to reduce their operations to de-stress the South African grid. This, combined with a high demand, saw platinum prices soar to all-time highs of $2 100 (over R16 000) per ounce.

Price tag of unsustainable operations
Led by lawyer Richard Spoor, the men are threatening with the biggest class action suit in the history of the African continent. At 47 deaths a day nationwide, TB is one of South Africa’s biggest killers.Despite the links between mining activities and silicosis, many mining companies have dismissed the illness – which is not acute – as ‘not their responsibility’.

Not true, Spoor claims. “Statistics show that the mining industry has not protected its employees. “South African mining companies are responsible for the burden of the staggering number of TB cases in southern Africa; they are also responsible for silicosis among employees.”

In 2003, Spoor won a class action suit on behalf of 1 600 men who had their lungs scarred as a result of their work in asbestos mines owned by former mining firm, Gencor, and Gefco. It was allegedly the first time black workers had won a compensation claim against their employers, and the largest settlement involving the mining industry.

Miriam Mannak
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This edition

Issue 39