Mine water management: a regulatory overview | Infrastructure news

Mining is regulated by the Department of Mineral Resources in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Act. However, DWS has a particular interest in mining’s negative impact on water as well as the vast quantities of water used in mining and beneficiation processes.

By Raquel Nosie Mazwi, director: Mine and Industrial Water Quality Regulation, Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) 

Mining activity has and continues to be key to South Africa’s economic growth; however, it has also resulted in significant water quality challenges: 

  • The Mpumalanga province is plagued by mine-impacted water polluting the streams, this could be attributed to ownerless mines. Additionally, pollution control works meant to manage mine-impacted waters are in a state of decay due to vandalism. 
  • The Gauteng province is faced with heavily polluted mine water due to pyrite that is associated with gold mining. The province is also faced with rising levels of mine-impacted water leading to decants.  
  • In the Kwa-Zulu Natal region, there are a lot of coal mines that are abandoned and left to decant.  
  • In Limpopo, especially in the Lephalale area, coal mining is prevalent mainly due to the production of electricity via coal-fired power stations. These coal fields are responsible for the production of mine-influenced water with a high sodium signature. The mines in the west and east of Limpopo impact the Olifants river catchment which is a tributary of the Limpopo River basin.  
Due to the large number of abandoned and ownerless mines in the South Africa, DWS is faced with a legal and financially responsibility to address water related impacts. 

Recently approved Mine Water Policy  

Environmental law has evolved over the past years to give effect to the concept of sustainability, and South African laws has been hailed as some of the most progressive laws in the world. 

Recently approved by cabinet, Mine Water Policy sets out the policy principles that strive to strengthen the protection of the water resources from mine water contamination for short and long term. It will strengthen the existing legislation, streamline environmental processes and encourage sustainability. 

The purpose of this policy is to provide a coherent and integrated approach towards sustainable mine water management. The objective of the policy is to provide relevant and integrated legislative remedy in order to strengthen a proactive mine water management approach within the whole mining life cycle. 

Policy principle 1: Integrated approach to mine water 

Policy principle 2: Apportionment of liabilities 

Abandoned mines and unmanaged decants pose a huge environmental challenge. While the new mine closure strategy is not yet finalised, the DWS has taken the time to strength policy positions on mine closure. There is alignment between national departments with the One Environmental Permitting System. But there is no clarification on the exact roles and responsibilities of DWS and DMRE about mine closures. We are therefore working closingely with the DMRE to deal with issues of misalignment.  

Policy principle 3: Optimum use of appropriate and cost-effective technologies 

Technologies can be used to treat mine water so that it can be reused as well as water products like sludge. The GN704 is being revised to enforce the treatment of mine impacted water.  

Policy principle 4: Classification and differentiation of mines 

Policy principle 5: Promotion of sustainable mining development 

Some mines have a lower environmental impact than other types of mines, and therefore authorisations should differ according to the mine classification. Some government departments have clashing mandates, and we are working on resolving that through intergovernmental committees. There is also the delineation of strategic water source areas. The Department is also exploring modelling to predict the future environmental impacts of mines.  

Policy principle 6: Environmental vigilance and continuous improvement 

This will be achieved through: 

  • The prohibition of mining activity in water sensitive areas in-line with the National Water Act 
  • Adhere to conservation of Agricultural Resources Act  
Fortunately, minimum information requirements for authorizations, catchment forums and stakeholder engagements are aligned. 

Policy principle 7: Reuse of treated mine water, including acid mine drainage (AMD) 

Policy principle 8: Use commitment to mine residue deposits 

Mining companies should see the acid mine drainage, and other mine water pollutants, as shared risk and opportunity. An appropriate mechanism such as Private Public Partnership (PPP) should be adopted for sustainable mine water management including AMD operations for continued dual benefits of potable water provision and pollution minimisation treatment.  

Furthermore, the DWS is now evaluating mine residue deposits for safety risks  

Policy principle 9: Government accountability of mine water management including AMD 

The DWS is consulting with the DMRE is terms of accessing the financial provisioning provided by mines for mine impacted waters upon closure of mines. 

Environmental regulatory framework 

  • National Water Act No 36 of 1998 
  • Hazardous Substances Act No. 15 of 1989 
  • Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, No 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) 
  • National Environmental Management Act No 107 of 1998 (NEMA) 
  • National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act No.39 of 2004 (NEM: AQA) 
  • National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act No 10 of 2004 (NEM:BA) 
  • National Environmental Management: Protection Areas Act No 57 of 2003 (NEM:PA) 
  • National Environmental Management : Waste Act No 59 of 2008 (NEM:WA)  
DWS enabling legislative framework 

  • The National Water Act aims to protect, use, develop, conserve, manage and control water resources as a whole. 
  • Section 19 allows for a directive to be issued, and for remedial work to be done by the Department at cost of the water user. 
  • Chapter 3 allows for protection of the resource. 
  • Section 53 allows for a directive to be issued for remedial work to be done by the Department at cost of the water user and to seek appropriate relief from a competent court. 
  • Section151 stipulates the extent of an offence and premise for a sentence of not more than 5 years or a fine(1st offence). 
  • The Water Services Act aims to provide for the rights of access to basic water supply and basic sanitation; to provide for the setting of national standards and of norms and standards for tariffs; to provide for water services development plans. 
Government departments

  • Department of Mineral Resources 
  • Department of Environmental Affairs 
  • Department of Water and Sanitation 

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