Water Pollution Near Mines Prompts South African Ombud Probe

May 22, 2014 5:46 am ET

(Updates with comment from DRDGold in 15th paragraph.)

May 22 (Bloomberg) -- South Africa’s anti-corruption ombudsman has begun a probe into water pollution allegedly caused by mining companies.

“The investigation has to do with alleged pollution of water as a result of mining operations in a number of provinces,” Oupa Segalwe, a spokesman for the Pretoria-based Public Protector, said by e-mail. The water-contamination inquiry is in its early stages, he said.

Scientists have found high quantities of uranium, arsenic, sulfuric acid and other toxic materials in streams and rivers in and around Johannesburg, where there has been gold mining for 130 years. The metropolis is in the middle of the Witwatersrand basin, the source of a third of all bullion the world has yet produced. Farmers have complained of pollution from coal mines in Mpumalanga province, west of the city.

Segalwe was unable to provide more information as to which companies, state institutions or people were being investigated and declined to discuss potential outcomes.

Companies including Glencore Plc have coal mines in Mpumalanga. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., the world’s third-biggest producer of the metal, has operations in South Africa.

The Public Protector is a state body independent of government set up through the nation’s constitution to root out corruption and improve how public servants work. Of the country’s working mines, almost 40 percent don’t have adequate funds for environmental rehabilitation, according to the government.

Criminal Complaint

The Federation for a Sustainable Environment, an environmental lobby group, made a criminal complaint against the directors of mining companies including AngloGold, Exxaro Resources Ltd. and Glencore because the Department of Water Affairs allegedly failed to enforce environmental regulations, according to Mariette Liefferink, the FSE’s chief executive officer.

The Public Protector contacted the FSE after reading about the issue in a newspaper, Liefferink said.

“It’s extremely encouraging and heartening that the public protector approached us about this issue,” she said by phone on May 20.

Exxaro, the country’s third-biggest coal producer, has been approached by the police about the complaint, spokesman Hilton Atkinson said by e-mail yesterday. The FSE in 2012 made a separate complaint about Exxaro’s Glisa coal mine outside Belfast in the Mpumalanga province that led to the Department of Water Affairs issuing a directive against the operation, he said. The nation’s High Court subsequently suspended the order, Atkinson said.

Fully Cooperate

AngloGold will cooperate fully with authorities on the matter, spokesman Chris Nthite said in an e-mail. The complaint was made against its Mine Waste Solutions unit that the gold producer bought in July 2012.

“The complaints have been brought without justification,” Glencore spokesman Gugulethu Maqetuka said in an e-mail. The company, which will work with authorities, said the mine in question operates within all requirements of the Water Act.

DRDGold Ltd. only became aware of the complains through media reports, James Duncan, a spokesman for the company, said by e-mail.

The Public Protector is led by Thuli Madonsela, named last month as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most-influential people after finding that President Jacob Zuma unduly benefited from state-funded upgrades to his private residence. She recommended he repay the 215 million rand ($20 million) of taxpayers’ money spent on his home in Nkandla. Zuma has denied any wrongdoing.

The Public Protector acts to “strengthen constitutional democracy by investigating and redressing improper and prejudicial conduct, maladministration and abuse of power in state affairs,” according to its website.