Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 58

Thought leader
Talk of sustainability is just lip service
Mining creates waste, which causes social and environmental harm, particularly
water contamination and air pollution. The consequences are often insidious
and the harm becomes obvious only decades later, as with silicosis and acid
mine drainage in South Africa, write Hanri Mostert and Cheri Young.
Silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by the
inhalation of dust, is so prevalent that it is classified
as a public health issue. Acid mine drainage, caused
by the release of sulphuric acid from minerals such
as pyrite into the water table, is a leading cause of
water pollution.
There is an uneasy relationship between reaping
the benefits of extractive activity and assuming
responsibility for its consequences. Mining, by its nature,
is destructive and waste-producing.
The cost of mitigating the harm – medical treatment
or environmental clean-up costs – is likely to be borne
by the state, and therefore society. This is apparent,
for instance, in the example of the silicosis settlement.
About 4 400 mine workers with silicosis may have
found some relief in the US$30m settlement of their
claims with Anglo American SA and AngloGold
Ashanti, but many more have not: thousands of other
ill miners are still seeking relief, with an approved class
action on the cards.
The interests of promoting society, preserving nature
and boosting the economy will always be competing.
Environmental destruction in the name of economic
and social development seems inevitable; conversely,
environmental preservation will impede societal and
economic development.
The magnitude of the task of balancing these
interests makes calls for ‘sustainable’ mining
seem like empty rhetoric. Still, it is beyond
argument that the sustainable use of
natural resources will contribute to
the longevity and prosperity of the
human race.
Sustainability has increasingly appeared in legal
frameworks around the globe. The notion of ‘sustainable
development’ has been catapulted into mainstream
thinking, and has become integral to business strategies.
But frequent talk of sustainability, particularly in the
business sector, may feed the belief that its tenets are
being realised. They are not.
We can make forecasts about the future, particularly in
respect of economic gains, but we cannot predict with
any certainty the true extent of the environmental and
social damage. This means the creators of regulatory
frameworks for extractive activity must be aware that
environmental and social harms may present long after
operations have ceased. Regulatory intervention is
necessary, but not sufficient. A multifaceted approach
is needed. This is particularly evident when dealing with
mining waste. How we achieve optimal sustainability
depends on the variables of the time, and thus our
approach to sustainability needs to be adaptive. Mine
waste – dust and water contamination – is an issue that
will eventually affect all of us.
It is time for society to choose the best response
to these man-made problems. It is time for us all to
take responsibility.
Professor Hanri Mostert is the DST/
NRF South African Research
Chair for Mineral Law in Africa;
Dr Cheri Young is a lecturer
in the Department of
Private Law. This story
was first published in
Business Day Live.
Image by Daylin Paul,
Sunday Times.

Daylin PaulSunday TimesBusiness Day Live

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