Windhoek — Previously booming mining towns are more often than not a shell of their glory days after they are reduced to ghost towns once the minerals have been depleted, leaving deep, and unsightly craters on the surface of the earth.
While it is not new, the onus is on mine owners to rehabilitate the environment once the mineral resources at a working mine are exhausted, or operations are no longer profitable.
The beneficiation process, unfortunately, is conducted with little or no regard for the environment.
A recent visit to the Dorob National Park at Arandis in the Erongo Region revealed that miners did not demolish their structures nor did they remove debris from the mining site at the closure of the mine.
Unlike in countries such as Canada where efforts are made to restore the ecosystem and turn it to productivity either for irrigation or farming, at Dorob Mine there are no signs of reclamation, remediation, rehabilitation or restoration.
It seems there was no clean up of contaminants at this mining site, as the pre-existing tailings storage facilities, capping tailings and waste rock piles with clean topsoil are still visible.
"That's a very dangerous place we always refrain from entering as there are still metals lying on the ground and other harmful chemicals that might cause sickness," said one Dorob resident.
According to the audit report on Managing of Pollution and Environment Rehabilitation of Mining Sites compiled by the Office of the Auditor General during the 2015/16 financial year, there are 157 abandoned mining sites in the country. These pose environmental problems such as collapsed structures, and contamination of groundwater and soil that subsequently have effects on livestock and human health.
The report further indicated that the State tasked the Directorate of Geological Survey within the Ministry of Mines and Energy as well as Ministry of Environment and Tourism to effectively monitor pollution and environmental rehabilitation at mining sites. However, none of the old mines have been rehabilitated and not enough environmental monitoring and inspection have been done at active mines since 2004.
Besides, small-scale miners have also been mining illegally without any valid Environment Clearance Certificates, which is a major prerequisite for one to acquire a mining licence, as per the Environment Management Act 2007.
Some mines were granted mining licences without providing a mine closure plan and financial mechanisms for environmental rehabilitation and aftercare.
The Office of the Auditor General found that all sand miners who received permits from the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry were operating without environmental clearance certificates.
As a result, the riverbeds got polluted and mining pits were not rehabilitated when mining operations ceased, which encouraged the dumping of waste into riverbeds.
"All active mines visited, except Rossing Uranium Mine and Ohorongo cement and factory, did not submit their final mine closure plans together with a funding mechanism to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. As a result, mineral right holders leave mining sites un-rehabilitated," further read the auditors' report.
The Environmental Management Act provides for the assessment and control of activities, which may have significant effects on the environment. This is done through applications for environmental clearance. This application requires the submission of environmental assessment reports, which include a scoping report and an environmental impact assessment report. The two reports identify and assess the impact of a planned activity on the environment and also inform the proponent's environmental management plan, which seeks to ensure the timely identification and continuous management of environmental risk through appropriate measures.
Although the environmental rehabilitation, according to the Environment Act, is based on the principle of "polluter pays", the audit found that the Ministry of Mines and Energy did not investigate the establishment of financial mechanisms for the environmental rehabilitation and aftercare. As a result, mining licences are issued without mineral right holders providing final mine closure plans together with funding mechanisms, a practice that has resulted in some mines liquidating and leaving the State to foot the bill for the clean-up.
In response to this issue, the Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, said the ability to monitor and enforce compliance with the Act through inspections is constrained by lack of resources and inadequate manpower.
Through the report on the implementation of the Environment Act of 2007 of the 2016/17 financial year, Shifeta indicated that sand mining continues to be a major challenge. He said his ministry is working with traditional authorities and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry and the Ministry of Mines and Energy to address this issue.
He however said his ministry has recorded a 24 percent increase in applications for environmental clearance from 466 applications in 2015/16 to 578 in the 2016/17 financial year. He said the majority of the applications for environmental clearance come from private proponents. However, the number of public institutions applying for environment clearance increased from 138 in 2015/2016 to 182 in the 2016/17 financial year.
Shifeta said there are still some institutions not in compliance with the Act in terms of applying for environmental clearance certificates, particularly regarding resource removal, including natural living resources as per Section 27(2) (c).