The coal mining industry is conscious of the environmental significance of its operations which, unavoidably, directly and indirectly, impact the environment.
Mine management is responsible for implementing environmental management plans and strategies. These plans generally use legal compliance (such as permits and licences) 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.
In South Africa, the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) ensures that the principles of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) and National Water Act are applied in coal mining activities.
The MPRDA requires an environmental management plan that outlines measures to control pollution and soil erosion, and to manage water use and waste disposal. The Act also provides for the preservation of biodiversity.
In addition, the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.
Other legislation with which the industry complies include:
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.
As is the case in all other mining industries, coal mining companies require integrated water use licences (IWUL) which regulate 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. Independent specialists are contracted to monitor and water use licence conditions and submit findings to the Department of Water and Sanitation.
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 therefore centre around responsibly sourcing water, mitigating negative impacts on all stakeholders and meeting the socio-economic needs of host communities.
The coal mining industry has adopted sustainable water resource 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 faced 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 run-off can be discharged into surrounding water courses, while other water is treated and can be re-used in processes such as dust suppression, irrigation of rehabilitated areas and in coal preparation plants.
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. New, creative ways of developing and restoring land, with the use of underground storage facilities are being explored for coal mines.
In terms of their environmental management plans, many mines put programmes in place to preserve indigenous flora and fauna, and to protect any stakeholder cultural heritage sites, traditions and sacred artefacts. Independent specialists are hired to assess and monitor biodiversity performance; many mines have created biodiversity and cultural heritage committees to ensure that these environmentally and culturally sensitive matters remain a priority.
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 also use risk management.
Coal mines have thorough risk management programmes which are put in place to reduce the impact that their operations have on the environment. Companies use future scenario planning in order to prioritise their environmental preservation interventions.
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.