Tailings miner gets the nod

FILE PICTURE: Miners. Picture: Michel Bega

An environmental rights group has lost its court battle to set aside a decision resulting in a uranium recovery project in the North West being given the go-ahead despite complaints of radioactive waste spillage in the area.

The Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) lodged an appeal against a 2012 ruling by the environment minister supporting the National Nuclear Regulator’s (NNR) decision to reverse a ban on the dumping of tailings material in the Stilfontein area.

The NNR in 2011 issued a directive to Mine Waste Solutions (Pty) Ltd (MWS) to cease its activities until it had a proper pipeline maintenance programme in place to clean up spillage.

MWS operates a surface reclamation project to recover uranium from gold-mining tailing dams.

The NNR directive followed complaints to the nuclear regulator about radioactive waste spillage in the areas surrounding MWS’s dams and pipes.

The regulator subsequently held meetings with MWS and conducted inspections, after which the CEO lifted the directive for a month, pending the assessment of MWS’s remedial action to avert further spillage.

Not satisfied with the decision, the environmental watchdog first unsuccessfully appealed to the board of the NNR and then to the minister, who also dismissed its appeal in October last year.

The FSE then appealed against the minister’s decision in the High Court, claiming procedural unfairness and that the decision was unjustifiable in the light of the pattern of spillage of radioactive material and the importance of maintaining a healthy environment.

The minister opposed the application, saying the directive was only lifted after the regulator was satisfied with the remedial actions taken, which included containing the spillage and averting further spillage.

An inspection showed that spillage in August 2011 was not the result of MWS activities, but those of Buffelsfontein gold mine.

A further spillage was confirmed in March 2012, but one of the property owners refused to allow MWS access to clean up the spillage on his property.

A follow-up inspection in March last year concluded that MWS’s slime spillage contingency plan was acceptable.

Acting judges L Pillay and A de Vries said there was no evidence that the minister’s decision had been final and not susceptible to changes and the federation’s approach had been premature.

The judges said the Federation for a Sustainable Environment had been permitted to make full representations and the minister could not be faulted as all relevant factors had been carefully assessed.

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