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Concerted effort required to address knowledge gaps

RESPONSIBLE FUTURE Addressing knowledge gaps will ensure a fundamental shift in practices, and ensure a sustainable and responsible future for the mining industry

MARIETTE LIEFFERINK A focused and diligent approach to mine care and maintenance is essential

Photo by Creamer Media

8th December 2023

By: Simone Liedtke

Creamer Media Social Media Editor & Senior Writer

     

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Mine care and maintenance, particularly in tailings management, require a concerted effort from regulators, operators and communities, especially as the mining industry continues to evolve.

However, this can be achieved only by acknowledging and acting upon identified knowledge gaps, says environmental activist organisation Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) CEO Mariette Liefferink.

To address these knowledge gaps in the industry, the FSE recently responded, and subsequently presented, to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) call for insights on the environmental dimensions of tailings management.

This move is closely tied to the implementation of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM), an initiative by UNEP to reduce harm to people and the environment.

The GISTM standard, Liefferink explains, places the responsibility on mine and tailings storage facility (TSF) operators to prioritise the safety of TSFs throughout their life cycle, including during the closure and postclosure phases.

However, as the mining sector addresses the environmental impact of tailings management, she emphasises that “a focused and diligent approach to mine care and maintenance is essential”.

Liefferink and the FSE have identified critical knowledge gaps, particularly in mine care and maintenance, such as loopholes in the current Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, which she says poses significant challenges during the closure process.

“Loopholes, such as those related to liquidation, the ‘pass the parcel’ strategy, and complex corporate structures, create uncertainties around responsibilities for closure.”

For this reason, the organisation emphasises the need for clear articulation among mining, insolvency and company law, to prevent situations where the State bears the financial burden of mine closure, owing to the actions of mining companies.

In addition, discussions during the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) Resolution 5/12, in March 2022, which concentrated on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals, focusing on the entire life cycle of minerals and metals, emphasised challenges such as inadequate funding for rehabilitation, legacy sites and regulators’ insufficient understanding of closure options.

Taking these considerations into account, the FSE, drawing on academic papers, expert opinions, government reports and community engagement, calls for a “robust approach” to address these knowledge gaps.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of sustainable solutions to these challenges, ongoing discussions about securing funding for research and remediation efforts are also gaining prominence.

Gold miner Sibanye-Stillwater’s Bokomosa Ba Rona, which means “our future” in Setswana, initiative, and North-West University Professor Elize van Eeden’s proposed research project for the Far West Rand align with this objective, Liefferink comments, adding that these initiatives focus on tourism, environmental features and postmining economic development, “thereby presenting a comprehensive approach to address challenges identified by the FSE”.

Other Challenges

The FSE also presented on the uraniferous nature of Witwatersrand tailings and other mining residues, which it says “poses a severe environmental threat”, to the UNEP.

Liefferink explains that elevated concentrations of uranium and its radionuclides have dispersed radioactive material into the environment, impacting on communities through windblown dust, waterborne sediment and the encroachment of settlements, particularly onto legacy TSFs.

She further stresses that historical TSFs contribute to ongoing challenges as waste is reprocessed, extracting residual commodities like gold.

Concerns arise from incomplete remining, often owing to financial constraints or the heterogeneity of the mined dumps.

Therefore, the FSE calls for a review of [the] authorisation processes for reprocessing residue deposits, which will, consequently, ensure that the extraction of value contributes to the comprehensive rehabilitation of the entire mining area, Liefferink explains.

 

Edited by Donna Slater
Features Deputy Editor and Chief Photographer

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