Coal mining and the environment

Coal mining [photo] The coal mining industry is conscious of the environmental significance of its operations which, unavoidably, directly and indirectly, impact the environment.

Mine management implement environmental management plans and strategies. These plans generally use legal compliance (such as permits and licenses) as the minimum requirement. Transparent and inclusive engagement with all stakeholders – is key to the industry's approach to environmental management including various tiers of government, environmental protection agencies and NGOs. Some mines have formed strategic partnerships with global organisations such as the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) to seek long-term solutions to environmental management challenges.

Regulatory structures

Environmental legislation

Environmental monitoring

Environmental monitoring and compliance audits are conducted annually, as part of coal mining companies’ environmental management systems. These audits are conducted by independent environmental auditors and their reports are submitted to the Departments of Mineral Resources and Water Sanitation for review by the permitting authority.

Full-time environmental officers monitor compliance with environmental management programmes, authorisations and water use licences, as well as specialist recommendations.

Integrated water use licenses

As is the case in all other mining industries, coal mining companies require integrated water use licences (IWUL) which regulates the use of water according to the National Water Act. IWUL can be granted or suspended at any given time at the discretion of the regulator. Annual monitoring of water use licence conditions is conducted by independent specialists and submitted to the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Water

The coal industry recognises that South Africa is a water scarce country and that water is a precious resource. The industry’s water management principles therefor centres around responsibly sourcing water, mitigating negative impacts on all stakeholders and meeting the socio economic needs of host communities. It is crucial for mining in an area not to undermine the socio economic aspirations of host communities.

The coal mining industry has adopted sustainable water resources management initiatives which ensure that water is equitably and appropriately distributed amongst stakeholders and mining operations. Mining companies tend to use potable water only for non-mining activities, such as staff accommodation and offices. Non-potable water, otherwise known as industrial water, is used in mining and processing operations as far as possible.

Managing a water balance is not the only environmental imperative face by companies, it is also crucial that coal mines ensure waste water is not discharged into the natural environment and that, wherever possible, water is recycled. Clean runoff can be discharged into surrounding water courses, while other water is treated and can be reused in processes such as dust suppression, irrigation of rehabilitated areas and in coal preparation plants.

Rehabilitation

Mines invest in the ongoing protection and restoration of their surrounding natural habitat.

Mines plan for habitat rehabilitation according to the agreed end land use objectives outlined in their closure plans and in accordance with their Environmental Management Plans and Rehabilitation plans whilst mines are still operational. Coal mines are thinking of new, creative ways to develop and restore land through using underground storage facilities during the life of mines.

Indigenous flora and fauna and cultural heritage sites are preserved by mines. Stakeholder’s ancestral heritage and ongoing traditions are believed to be sacred and are managed accordingly. Independent specialists assess and monitor biodiversity performance continuously and many mines have created bio-diversity and cultural heritage committees to ensure that these environmentally and culturally sensitive matters remain a priority.

Innovation and planning

The coal mining industry is continuously looking for cleaner coal solutions. These solutions include carbon capture and storage facilities and the reduction of methane emissions. Companies are also creating incentive for managers to meet holistic targets by making environmental management part of KPIs.

Coal mines understand the material impact that their operations have on the environment and prioritises impact mitigations by implementing a risk planning approach. Companies use future scenario planning.

Contentious resource consumption, forward planning and environmental stewardship go hand in hand with the industry's future ability to operate and meet the needs and its commitments to all of its stakeholders. Thus, the coal mining industry reiterates its commitment to seeking sustainable and mutually beneficial long terms solutions to environmental challenges.