‘The clock is ticking and time is running out for us to avoid major climate change with its attendant real and serious threats to our economies and people’s livelihoods, health, food security, and damage to our ecosystems’ Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism

By coincidence the paper by Nyoka and Brent in this issue inspired me to write a sequel to my previous Comment on the Wonderful World of Minerals. The paper referred specifically to evaluating the environmental costs a metallurgical plant, and was well researched and topical. But the inspiration came from some of the definitions and terminology, which are obviously commonplace in impact assessment studies but not in my up-to-date dictionaries, so I was on a much-needed learning curve. I quote from the paper two of the many definitions that intrigued me: ‘The environmental sustainability dimension concerns an organization’s impacts on the environment due to an introduced technology.

It has an external focus and addresses impacts on air, water, land and mined abiotic resources,’ and ‘The abiotic resources mean the non-renewable resources existing in the mine.’ In terms of the Minerals Ownership and Royalty Bill the sustainability and non-renewable resources are vital considerations to both the State (as the owners) and the exploiters of the resource (as licensees) and must be holistically evaluated over the full range of activities involved in the exploitation. Sustainability means much more than making provision for some form of income-generating activity for the population associated with the mine on its final closure.

There has been a quiet revolution in responsibilities and authorities in exploiting the mineral ‘heritage of the nation’. These now encompass mining, beneficiation, processing, and even in some cases, the end use of the products. No longer can the owners of the company licensed to exploit the resource decide unilaterally to, pick the eyes out, of the resource so as to achieve the maximum DCF return on investment, thus leaving an unexploitable low grade remnant for posterity. Moreover, it has become painfully apparent, particularly in the case of sulphidic orebodies, that the mere opening of the mine to water and air can have a profound impact on the formation of the dreaded acid mine drainage (AMD), on waste disposal and on environmental pollution.

This impact, which can occur over many decades, applies to a large proportion of our wonderful world of mineral resources. Gold, uranium, platinum, most base metals, and, not least, the coal deposits of South Africa have been and are still subject to the consequences. Indeed the AMD pollution has now reached crisis proportions, as evidenced by the many TV programmes and press reports on farmers having land and boreholes polluted to the extent of their losing their livelihood. Also fish, birds and even crocodiles are perishing in the polluted rivers, dams and wetland sanctuaries. This is claimed to be the result of the many licenses granted for coal mining in Mpumalanga in the attempt to keep the frantic Escom power station expansion on target. Apart from the pollution from toxic metals, there are even reports of radioactive sediments, from the AMD drainage off the gold/uranium mines of the West Rand, in the Wonderfontein spruit that feeds water to Potchefstroom. Whether such crisis reports are justified or exaggerated is not for debate in this Comment.

The point is that past mining and waste disposal practices of ‘liming and dumping’ still used today are having profound sustainability impacts on land water and on the abiotic resources. The latter impact is of importance, for example, in the attempts to resuscitate previously closed gold mines. A much more disturbing consideration is that air pollution is now the subject of huge international concern. The realization that it is almost certain that global warming is the cause of the exceptional floods in Europe and droughts in Australia, has given rise to a measure of panic among fossil fuel based industries. The well-debated emission of the green house gases (GHGs) is reaching the stage where international action has to be enforced. Marthinus van Schalkwyk made an impassioned appeal to the Global Warming Summit convened by President Bush to persuade the developed countries to take urgent action to limit their emissions of GHGs. Mass starvation and poverty would be inevitable on the African continent if global warming were not curtailed.

This is a somewhat two-faced appeal since South Africa is reputably the worst offender in the world in relation to its GDP. This is not surprising when over 90% of South Africa’s power generation is from coal, and the Sasol CTL plant produces at least twice as much CO2 fuel from the oil barrel! To add to this profligate burning of coal there are the emissions of methane from the coal mining operations. Methane has 20 times the deleterious effect of CO2. Coal is the lifeblood of the country. It is the source of lowcost power, which is the key to the competitive processing of minerals, and to attracting investment leading to job creation in power-hungry industries. It also provides much needed export revenue. If, as has been promised by our Minister, we stop hiding behind our developing status and conform to the spirit of the Kyoto accord, this could be disastrously costly.

Perhaps this global crusade to limit the emission of the GHGs is our most serious challenge. So where do these contemplative thoughts lead me? It is to re-emphasize the need for high-priority national research and development programmes, planned and conducted and financed jointly by the State and by the mining industry. There are, I believe, conceptual answers to all these challenges. The AMD problem can be solved by a concerted effort to collect and purify the effluent and in so doing recover the polluting constituents and sell them or give them away for industry use rather than dumping them with a danger of their leaking back into the environment. I understand that the sequestration, collection and storage of the carbon dioxide emissions from power stations have reached a stage where a demonstration plant could be erected, as suggested at the recent energy conference.

This must certainly be a joint effort by Escom and the DME. The motor car emissions do not appear to have an immediate solution and can be expected to escalate exponentially with auto production and sales in China, India and South America. One cannot collect the carbon dioxide from every exhaust pipe, for storage underground. But there is the biofuels option, which has been dismissed, mistakenly I believe, because of the conflict with food production. I am very hopeful that a biofuel programme can come to the rescue. There is very convincing evidence submitted to me by the CSIR that the total requirements for transport fuels in the United States can be produced economically in the form of biofuels without interfering in any way with the production of food crops. An analogous concept has been proposed for South Africa to achieve a similar outcome, one with only a positive effect on land and food, but with the added benefit of job creation. This concept surely deserves a joint national development effort by many government departments and those mines interested in sustainability. These are but a few of many examples to illustrate my message.

The custodians of our mineral resources and the current and potential developers must get together to undertake some complex and, one hopes, holistic evaluations to define national strategies and cooperative development programmes to solve the challenges that are emerging in the exploitation of our bountiful mineral heritage..  R.E. Robinson October 2007