“What this settlement between Bosveld Phosphates Pty Ltd, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Water and Sanitation, shows is that environmental crimes don’t go unpunished. While some would have expected a harsher outcome, we believe this is a step in the right direction as we continue to work together to deal with pollution in the Olifants River Catchment.”Dr. Sharon Pollard, Director of the Association for Water and Rural Development
She was speaking after the ruling in the Phalaborwa Magistrates Court on 30 July 2015 that saw Bosveld Phosphates PTY Ltd sentenced to a fine of R1, 450 million cash and a suspended sentence of R1, 1 million for water spillage at the Ga-Selati River in 2014. Bosveld Phosphates Pty Ltd pleaded guilty to contravening sections of both the National Environmental Management Act and the National Water Act through their unlawful discharge of hazardous waste water.
As noted by Dr Stefanie Freitag-Ronaldson, General Manager: Savanna & Arid Research Unit: Scientific Services at SANParks “This judgement sends a strong message that compliance to South Africa’s environmental and water management legislation is non-negotiable and management strategies must be put in place by the investors to deal with the changing climate.”
The Ga-Selati River enters the Olifants River to the south of Phalaborwa, very close to the Kruger National Park above the Massingir Dam and Mozambique. The 2014 spill polluted the river for several kilometres, severely impacting the downstream environment.
Pollard notes that while the focus has been on this spill, the incident draws attention to the entire Phalaborwa mining and industrial complex, along with coal and platinum mining upstream in the Olifants Catchment, and the pressure it puts on an already stressed river system.
“Our research into the resilience of the Limpopo River Basin and the Olifants Catchment in particular indicates that there have been spills every year for a long time, not just from Bosveld. At the end of the day the mines and associated industries can’t cope with the amount of effluent they produce and this represents an ongoing source of risk to the people and natural resources in the catchment.”Dr. Sharon Pollard
A recent study that forms part of the USAID: RESILIM O (a USAID-funded project to make the Olifants Catchment more resilient to change, especially through climate change and its impacts on natural resources and people) highlighted some of the major water quality issues. Samples taken at 28 points along the river show high salinity associated with mining activities, acid mine drainage and irrigated agricultural practices. There are also concerns around sulphate levels associated with mining and acid mine drainage, phosphate levels associated with wastewater treatment and agricultural practices (phosphate fertilizers) and pH levels associated with mining and acid mine drainage. “And climate change is likely to exacerbate the strain that the system is under, with increased temperatures, evaporation, flooding and droughts. This impacts the livelihoods of the poor and vulnerable as well as affecting agriculture and food security,” notes Pollard.
While there are plans to move towards a zero discharge system where mines and associated industries will no longer release untreated water into the Olifants or its tributaries like the Ga-Selati River, this is still a long way off. Also, while mines are required to have social and environmental mitigation plans and funds in place, these seldom cover the real – or full – costs of ensuring the health of the river system. “For example, the costs of monitoring the situation in the Phalaborwa complex will have to be borne by other roleplayers,” notes Pollard.
Recognising the sustained risks associated with the Phalaborwa Complex, stakeholders have proposed an emergency response protocol to enable them to deal with emergency situations when they arise, but it is yet to be ratified. “We need to see what’s happened here as symptomatic of the industry. There is a long term management and closure issue and we need to prepare the catchment for the future – this includes planning for environmental disasters,” states Pollard.
Through their work on USAID: RESILIM O, AWARD is working with SANParks, the Department of Water and Sanitation, the Department of Environmental Affairs, mines, agriculture, municipalities and other stakeholders to make the Olifants Catchment better able to cope with change.
“We are working with the mines to support changes in practices. We want the mines and industry to realise that they are very much connected with others in the catchment. If they start to see themselves as part of a bigger system, that’s progress,” says Pollard. She notes that civil society is getting its act together and will be better prepared with protocols, procedures and information to lay even more effective charges against future transgressors.
Later in 2015, AWARD will be launching the Our Olifants campaign as a way to start building a sense of shared responsibility and identity in the catchment. “We believe downstream users should support action further upstream and that those upstream should realise what is happening downstream. And ask ourselves, how can we work together to make the catchment more resilient?”