Golder Associates has developed a guideline for water-use licence application for a key mining client that it hopes will become an invaluable resource for the industry, says Riana Munnik.
South Africa’s legislation in terms of water use is the most progressive on the continent, says Munnik, who is the divisional leader of the Integrated Water & Waste Management Planning Division at Golder. “We have fine legislation, but while we are more advanced than other countries, it is the efficient implementation of this legislation that is the big challenge.”
It is for this reason that Golder worked with one of its key mining clients to address the inevitable grey areas in applying for a water-use licence by developing a risk-based guideline to facilitate the process. “The risk-based approach is something that is supported by the Department of Water Affairs (DWA),” confirms Munnik. Indeed, Golder was appointed by the DWA to revise and update Regulation 704, known as GN 704, made in terms of Section 26 of the National Water Act, which relates specifically to the protection of the water resource in mining and related activities.
Munnik explains that the National Water Act, 1998 (Act No 36 of 1998) mandates the DWA to protect, use, develop, conserve, manage and control the country’s water resources in an integrated manner. Therefore water users such as mines are required to submit water-use licence applications to the DWA for the authorisation of water uses associated with planned and/or existing mining operations.
Water uses that require authorisation
Examples of water uses that require such authorisation are the abstraction of water, whether from a borehole or river, or even transferring contaminated water from underground workings into a treatment plant. “What is important from a mining perspective is that pollution and stormwater control dams and mine-residue disposal facilities, such as tailings dams, all require authorisation in terms of the Act,” explains Munnik.
However, the problem is that while the Act was developed as long ago as 1998, the DWA only ever brought out a single guideline in 2007. “There is no clear interpretation of what constitutes a water use,” notes Munnik.
“Recently we saw the DWA regarding dust suppression on mine roads as a water use, whereas previously it was not. This leads to a situation where a client may have to consult a lawyer to argue that this is not a water use. That is the dilemma: should mining clients contest the DWA’s interpretation, or simply abide by its rulings?
“In many instances, mining clients just concur and fill out the forms and apply. That leads to a certain practice within the industry that is not aligned with the original intent of the law,” argues Munnik. “The interpretation of the Act has grown organically, but it has never been a framework, or been proactively thought through; that is why it is so difficult for mining clients, in particular.” Munnik says the solution to this dilemma lies in the water-use licence application. “This is a critical component in defining upfront which water uses are under consideration,” says Munnik.
Getting the application right from the get-go is particularly important, as the DWA does not have a regulated timeframe for the issuing of water-use licences. In practice, the DWA assessment process can take 11 months (if it is quick), two years realistically and up to six years in other cases. “We refer to this process as the art of water licence application”.
“This really places a restriction on new developments in the mining industry, as any new water use cannot commence without the necessary authorisations (that is, a water-use licence) issued by the DWA. Therefore it is very important to provide the correct technical supporting information to the DWA in the format of an integrated water and waste management plan (IWWMP) to support the water-use licence application,” says Munnik.
Dedicated team of experts
Golder has a dedicated team of experts specialising in the compilation of IWWMPs, with Munnik herself having been in the sector for 20 years. The IWWMP provides a short-, medium- and long-term water and waste management framework for a mine, specifically in terms of storm water, groundwater, process water and waste.
“The action plan of an IWWMP is an excellent management tool to guide an industry such as mining for the implementation of a range of measures to improve its environmental performance and to save costs by implementing pollution prevention instead of treating water or waste at a high cost,” says Munnik.
Again a major stumbling block is that the DWA does not have a document that provides clear guidance related to the exact legal definition of water uses. “This has resulted in the DWA regulating on-site activities, such product stockpiles, by means of the water-use authorisation process. It is therefore possible that the water uses associated with a particular mining operation can change based upon the latest interpretation of the Act by DWA officials.
“In many instances, the DWA officials responsible for managing catchments and associated mines and industries are inexperienced, and do not have the legal insight into the original intent of the NWA,” argues Munnik. “On a national level, there is also not always a consistent approach between the various regional offices of the DWA related to water-use authorisation and the definition of water use.”
Thus it is entirely possible for a mining client to apply for water-use authorisation for activities not legally defined as water uses in the Act. “This has resulted in unnecessary delays and a huge backlog in the water-use licensing process,” points out Munnik. This led to Golder working closely with one of its key mining clients “to take a proactive approach and document legally defensible definitions of water use to prevent the client from applying for authorisation of activities not deemed to be water uses.”
The resultant guideline developed by Golder incorporates “a risk-based approach to deal with water uses that are either not legally defensible or clear-cut.” This risk-assessment process was developed further to determine the risks associated with mining activities that may be considered a water use by the DWA, but for which there is no legal backing.
Munnik says that Golder’s key mining client will utilise the water-use identification guideline and accompanying procedure and the outcome of the activity or project-specific risk assessment to inform management decisions related to the water uses associated with an activity or operation for which the client will apply for authorisation in the future.
“Another solution to the dilemma of the delay in the issuing of water use licences by the DWA is the continual follow-up with the DWA during the assessment phase. The DWA periodically requests additional information from applicants. Due to the potential change in departmental requirements, it does seem that the goalposts keep on moving, which is why it is critical to maintain contact with the DWA during the process,” says Munnik.
This is why it is important for mining clients, in particular, to approach a seasoned consultancy like Golder, which has not only established a close working relationship with the DWA, but also has an intimate understanding of the DWA’s requirements and submitting applications of a sufficiently high quality, with the required technical supporting information.”
Acid mine drainage
With acid mine drainage (AMD) being a particularly hot topic in the mining industry at present, Munnik says that Section 19 of the Act does, indeed, address the requirement for pollution prevention. “There is a hierarchy of water-quality management that requires users to prevent pollution.”
An added complication is determining who was responsible for specific instances of historical AMD, with the government having to allocate emergency funding to deal with the problem, especially in the Witwatersrand Basin. “The latest thinking on the part of the DWA is to try and prevent pollution before it even occurs. In this regard, the capping and closing of discard dumps is a fine example of how mining clients can eliminate ingress and seepage, which can result in a long-term treatment dilemma.”
In conjunction with the Water Research Commission, Golder is also spearheading the development of a South African mine-water atlas, which will provide a definitive guide to the extent of mine-influenced water in the country. Munnik says that this ambitious project is scheduled for completion in 2016, and will give invaluable insight into the intersection of surface water, groundwater and mining activities.