The heavy toll of coal mining in South Africa
South Africa’s coal-powered energy sector brings environmental devastation despite legal regulations.
Emalahleni, South Africa – Everything in Andries Evans’ house is coated in black dust. It has invaded his sofas, the Jesus picture on the wall, the plastic cups and plates in his kitchen, and the old man himself.
He is a skinny, fragile man who looks much older than his 59 years. His red cap is dirty, his shirt and jogging pants are dirty. Everything is blackened from the coal his crumbling brick house is built upon.
The old man looked up and stuck his finger through the tin roof, as if it were going through soft butter.
“Look, it is all old and eroded.”
He said he feels the dust is not good for him, he is short of breath and feels weak. Even after 35 years, he cannot get used to the life on the Highveld of South Africa, an area that is said to have some of the highest air pollution levels in the world.
The area of Emalahleni was declared a “High Priority Area” by the South African government in 2007 due to the hazardous substances in the air.
Among the issues scientists have found are elevated carbon dioxide emissions, sulphur dioxide in the air, heavy metals in the soil and acidic groundwater. These were linked to the 22 collieries in Mpumalanga, as well as the 12 coal-fired power stations – of the country’s 16.
“Now that we are going through a power crisis the government relies even more on coal,” said Tracey Davies, an attorney from the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town.
“It is the easiest and quickest way to generate power, so we are just following this path without considering the consequences.”
Generating more power through coal means more coal must be extracted.
But South Africa, which currently generates 90 percent of its electricity through coal, is already struggling with the devastating impacts of more than a century of excessive mining.
A stroll around Emalahleni is enough to get a feel for the impact coal has had the environment.
The landscape shines in bright colours, layers of white and yellow cover former riverbeds and grasslands that were transformed into mining areas.
There are no leaves on the trees, and the waters are clear and lifeless. Thick fog looms in the air.
“Acid mine drainage,” said Matthews Hlabane from the Southern African Green Revolutionary Council who has been monitoring the area for almost 30 years.
“The pH levels around here are below 1. Some residents of the informal settlements say that birds fall dead from the sky when they fly over the area.”
Hlabane laughs sarcastically. “In a few decades we are going to fight wars over water.”
He took Al Jazeera to areas in which coal seems have been burning underground for decades, where sinkholes and polluted groundwater from abandoned mines are a hazard to the surrounding communities.
Children play on the old mine dumps and adults collect the coal waste for domestic fires.
“If nothing happens we are going to lose all our water resources,” said Hlabane.
“The Olifants river is already contaminated and we are on our way to do the same to the Limpopo river.”
South Africa is not the only country to have chosen coal as the way forward in the near future.
Demand for coal is growing worldwide. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), it has been “the fastest-growing global energy source of the 21st century”, ensuring 40 percent of the world’s electricity supply in 2014.
The IEA predicts that China will account for three-fifths of global demand growth in the next 5 years, followed by India and other Asian nations.
At the launch of the IEA’s annual Coal Market report last December, executive director Maria van der Hoeven said “coal use in its current form is simply unsustainable”.
Energy production through coal releases sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxides and particulate matter (PM) at levels that exceed the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization, she said.
Even Europe, whose countries are investing more and more in renewable energies, still derives a third of its power from the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.
These trends ignore the numerous studies that have proved the negative impacts of coal mining on the environment, for which South Africa serves as a prime example.
Acid mine drainage
“Acid mine drainage from coal mining areas has had a devastating impact on water resources, with acidification of rivers and streams, elevated metal levels and consequent fish die-offs”, said a report released by the WWF South Africa in 2011.
Another study conducted by Greenpeace concluded that “decades of coal [mining] have poisoned the landscape and driven the Olifants River to a crisis point”.
The study suggested that the pollution levels are the cause of more than 2,000 premature deaths per year in South Africa.
Attorney Tracey Davies holds the government responsible for this “nightmare disaster”. She said the lawmakers are failing to monitor and enforce the “wonderful policies” South Africa has regarding the rehabilitation of the environment.
Phuti Mabelebele from the Department of Petroleum and Minerals, which regulates the duties of mining companies to prevent environmental damage, says that currently 263 mining licences have been granted, and more than 500 prospecting rights.
“Mining companies are expected to comply with the mine environmental policy,” she told Al Jazeera. She explained that “there is a mine rehabilitation programme in place that companies comply with,” although she did not elaborate on the nature of the programme.
The Bench Marks Foundation of South Africa insists that action must be taken. The NGO released a report last year, saying that there are at least 6,000 abandoned mines in Mpumalanga – 160 of these are around Emalahleni – which are spilling acid water and heavy metals into the environment.
“We call for obligatory transparency by mining corporations regarding mine closure plans,” said John Capel, the CEO of the NGO.
“Thousands of communities are living in areas that should have been closed off due to extremely hazardous conditions”.
Sitting on fire
He refers to places like Coronation, an informal settlement on the other side of Emalahleni. It looks like a post-apocalyptic film set – hills over hills of blackness, interrupted by sinkholes that cut through the landscape like giant scars.
The settlement is named after the mining operation it was built on, which was owned by Anglo American Coal and closed in the late 1940s.
“I know this is not safe,” said Salome Elem, a local resident, as she stood on the ridge of the dump, shovelling coal into a large bucket.
She said she doesn’t want her four-year-old son to play in the area because of the sinkholes and the dust that she thinks are dangerous. Two boys were recently burned to death after falling into an abandoned mine shaft, she recalled.
She looked fearfully at Matthews Hlabane as the activist explained that the ground underneath her shack could collapse at any moment.
“I know where we are standing is not safe … but my house?” she asked.
Every day she collects coal for domestic use. She is one of millions of households in South Africa who don’t have access to power, although the wires supplying the mines are visible from where she digs.
“You say there is a power problem in South Africa?” she laughed.
“I cook with coal and use solar power for light.”
Elem pointed towards a red and white shack, less than 50m away. On the roof is a solar panel. It generates just enough power to light a weak bulb and charge their phones at night.
“Most of the people in Coronation have started using solar,” Elem said.