by Miriam Mannak

Myth busting

Sustainability in mining

Mining in a sustainable manner is possible and does exist
mining.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. Fixing these issues is vital for the survival of the industry, and needs to be treated as a priority.

Let’s face it: without mining, South Africa would not – or rather, could not – be the financial powerhouse it is today. The industry is one of our economy’s main drivers, a major job creator and an important pillar of the sub-saharan African economy. But as always, there is a dark side.

Take the sector’s insatiable hunger for energy. 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. In 2009, a year after energy restrictions were implemented, this estimated amount stood at 445 800 000 metric tonnes.

Both the South African government and the private sector have become increasingly 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. The annual event took place in Cape Town earlier this year and attracted thousands of mining experts, politicians and business leaders.

“Can we exploit our mineral resources in a sustainable manner while still meeting our international obligations to reduce our carbon emissions?” he asked the crowds. “This is a difficult question but, in short, the answer has to be yes. We do have to raise mining output, but we also have to become more energy-efficient and our energy mix has to have a lower carbon content. This will cost – make no mistake about it,” he added.

“If we sequence the transition properly; if we invest in the necessary research and technology and if we use the appropriate balance of fiscal measures, we can support the transition to a lower carbon future while raising mining output.

“Finland’s famous story of becoming a world leader in environmental sustainable forestry gave the country a new comparative advantage.

"We have an even greater potential to develop and then export clean mining technologies,” said Manuel.

The challenges of energy efficiency and curbing climate change are just two of the sustainability issues South Africa’s mining industry needs to come to terms with.

Polluted soil, air and water; AMD; toxic and radioactive waste dumps; poverty; health and safety issues among those who work and have worked below the earth’s surface; inadequate living conditions – the list of environmental and social problems linked to mineral extraction is long.

“A lot of firms say that the problems linked to mining are beyond their control. They, however, should realise that and acknowledge that extraction of minerals has a hefty social cost,” commented Mamphela Ramphele, chairperson of Gold Fields and a director at AngloAmerican. She was one of the keynote speakers at the 2012 mining Indaba.

“Companies must own the problem and use their innovative power to find solutions. Sustainability should be one of their strategic imperatives, and companies should attempt to contribute to development.

“We need to demonstrate the unique ability of the private mining sector to create innovative approaches, products and organisational mechanisms that can leverage economic value to the benefit of communities. I would like to see a situation where a mining company comes into a community and starts to sow these sustainability seeds from the initial exploration stage of a project right through to the eventual and inevitable mine closure,” she added.

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. “They need to have a dignified working environment, and they should be able to return to loved ones in one piece.

“We continue to be worried about the loss of lives. Up until the first day of mining Indaba, 13 people lost their lives in the mining sector this year alone. This is partially due to the refusal of some chief executive officers to make changes and take personal responsibility for workers’ safety.

“Living conditions of mineworkers and their families should improve too,” she added.

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.

After all, the sector has taken a firm knock over the past decades and is no longer the dominating economic giant it used to be. 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.

“Decades ago, most miners did not take into consideration the environmental issues linked to their operations,” Kingston said during one of the mining Indaba’s panel discussions. “However, if we want to continue to attract foreign direct investment, we need to become more competitive and start looking at these and other challenges more seriously.”

Mining vs the 2008 Power Crisis

In 2008, Eskom was no longer able to meet South Africa’s electricity demand and, as a result, the country was struck by rolling blackouts that lasted months.

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 temporarily 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.

“The underground working environment requires a continuous supply of air and refrigeration to maintain temperatures at a maximum of 28.5°C. The refrigeration plant and the ventilation fans system consume around 27% of the total power used by these deep-level operations.”

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

Billions of dollars – that is what South African mining companies could end up paying if more than 7 000 former mineworkers have it their way. Led by lawyer Richard Spoor, the men are threatening with the biggest class action suit in the history of the African continent.

The reason? They are all suffering from silicosis – a chronic, incurable lung disease that causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and stabbing chest pains. It is an illness that usually develops over time by breathing in silica dust and small particles, and manifests only later – often years after a miner has retired. While silicosis is not fatal, the illness makes patients susceptible to tuberculosis. 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. We are doing this (class action) because it is the only way that we can address legacy issues,” the lawyer was quoted in Business Report last year.

“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. As part of the settlement, Gencor had to pay R448-million into the Asbestos Relief Trust, from which payments would be made to victims over 25 years.

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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