[Debate] (Fwd) Right2Know about mining ecodisasters? Nope, not if you ask the Pretoria regime
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Mon Apr 16 10:37:22 BST 2012
*Secrecy over environment information*
April 16 2012 at 09:15am
By Tony Carnie
Several government departments and private companies still think
information and documents on the state of SA's environment are "state
secrets", and they often refuse to release even the most routine data to
The worst offender, according to a report published last week, is the
Mineral Resources Department -- which told citizens to take a hike in 97
percent of cases where they sought information on environmental health
and protection issues.
This "culture of secrecy" extended to serious cases where groundwater
might have been polluted by acids and poisons, and to less controversial
requests on what plans were in place to rehabilitate environmental
damage when mines closed down.
There was also evidence that some officials seemed more concerned with
protecting the financial interests of mining companies than they were
with safeguarding the interests of neighbouring communities and civil
This is according to a report by a national law clinic which provides
legal services to people and groups concerned with environmental justice
Titled "Unlock the Doors", the report charges that the Promotion of
Access to Information Act (Paia) has become a convenient tool for some
government bodies to avoid, delay or refuse to release information which
should be freely available to the public.
Melissa Fourie, the former head of the government's Green Scorpions
environmental inspectorate, who now directs the Centre for Environmental
Rights, said she and her colleagues were "astonished" by the extent to
which government and private groups concealed information.
"In some cases, private bodies appear to be aided by public bodies in
concealing basic information like licence conditions from the public...
Moreover, Paia is increasingly being used to exclude civil society from
basic feedback on governance and information that should be freely
The report is based on a two-year project to analyse the success of
civil society to access information which would enable people to hold
the government and companies to account for their impacts on the
The analysis is based on more than 104 formal requests under Paia and 42
requests (not using Paia) for access to information submitted to 17
public and 35 private bodies over the past 18 months.
Centre attorney Dina Townsend and her colleagues also kept records of
hundreds of telephone calls and e-mail reminders during the project,
which culminated in two high court cases and two formal complaints to
the public protector against government officials.
"In the course of submitting over 100 requests for information, the
centre encountered reluctance, resistance and suspicion from both public
and private bodies. We were frequently interrogated about our and our
clients' motives, use and need for the information. We were told that
key documents like copies of licences were confidential commercial
documents not appropriate for public disclosure," said Townsend.
For example, the centre requested a copy of an environmental management
programme from a mining company which had abandoned a coal mine without
doing any rehabilitation work.
The requests were sent to an official identified only as "Mr D", who was
responsible for handling all requests under Paia at one of the mining
department's busiest regional offices.
"Mr D failed to respond to any of our e-mails or telephone calls," says
the report, noting that the official appeared to be the only person
authorised to release certain information.
"We phoned Mr D every day for a week. To date Mr D has not answered or
returned these calls and we still do not have the requested information.
The centre eventually reported Mr D to the public protector."
The report also criticised the power of such indivi- duals within the
mining depart-ment to "radically under- mine the right to access to
Overall, the mining department's compliance with Paia was consistently poor.
Of the 41 requests sent to this department, only seven were acknowledged.
The department failed, without exception, to respond to requests within
the legislated 30-day deadline. Nor did it request an extension for
another 30 days.
Instead, most requests were greeted with a standard letter denying
access to the information sought.
In one case, the department's national office granted partial access to
information, but centre lawyers battled for months to extract this
information through the Gauteng regional office.
In another case, officials claimed they were unable to copy documents --
and if the staff from the centre wanted to make copies themselves they
would be liable to a fine of at least R500 000 if any documents were
damaged or lost.
"This fine has no basis under the Promotion of Access to Information Act
and is clearly intended to intimidate the centre into abandoning its
Centre officials were often sent from pillar to post, seeking access to
information from government officials and companies.
Some information officers also seemed to be untrained or unfamiliar with
the act's requirements and were threatened with legal action by two
The department had also largely ignored statutory requirements to report
whether it was complying with Paia. However, the department's latest
report showed that it received 607 requests for in- formation during
2010/11. It granted access to information in just 14 cases.
"This high percentage of refusals indicates a significant lack of
Private companies also seemed reluctant to release information.
In one case, Gold Fields Limited executive vice-president (general
counsel) Michael Fleishcher wrote to Fourie acknowledging that most, if
not all, the documents requested were public, but noted: "We release
information to stakeholders in a controlled fashion and reduce the risk
of information being misused."
Responding to a similar request to release information voluntarily on
its website, Harmony Gold Mines CEO Graham Briggs said his company was
committed to "dialogue and transparency" and that documents requested
were public. However, the centre should rather get the information from
the government, Briggs said.
Sentula mining company, however, said it would be only too happy to
Mining department spokeswoman Zingaphi Jakuja did not respond to
requests for comment.
l The full Centre for Environmental Rights report can be viewed at:
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