South African Toxic Mine Dumps Fail Citizens, Harvard Body Says

  • Government has failed to clean up gold-mine waste: Harvard Law
  • Country has loose environmental protection during apartheid

South Africa is failing to uphold citizens’ human rights by allowing toxic waste from huge mine dumps in and around Johannesburg to seep into rivers, according to Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

The government hasn’t done enough to mitigate the impact of contaminated water from abandoned mines and dust storms from radioactive waste dumps, the IHRC said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday. While a long-term plan announced in May to spend 12 billion rand ($843 million) cleaning water from mines is a positive, it came more than a decade after polluted water began seeping out west of Johannesburg, the clinic said.

The effect on the environment is a human-rights issue, given that the country pledged to uphold such rights in 1994 when it held its first democratic elections, the IHRC said.

“The government has not only inadequately mitigated the harm from abandoned and active mines, but it has also offered scant warnings of the risks, performed few scientific studies about the health effects and rarely engaged with residents on mining matters,” the clinic said in the report.

Mlimandlela Ndamase, a spokesman for the minister of water and sanitation, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Flooded Mines

After intensive mining since the 1880s, Johannesburg and its surrounding areas are littered with enormous underground mined-out caverns that have become flooded, while waste dumps resemble vast sand dunes. Water and oxygen have combined with toxic metals such as uranium and iron, by-products of gold excavation, to create a highly acidic and sulfuric liquid that flows into the rivers supplying water to the region.

As the city has expanded, communities have come to live near the dumps, creating a public health concern.

“The government’s delayed response and piecemeal approach falls short of South Africa’s duties under human-rights law,” the clinic said in the report, which was compiled as a result of 200 interviews in 20 communities over six years.

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