#MineAlert exposes never-before-seen data on abandoned mines

#MineAlert exposes never-before-seen data on abandoned mines

Organisation: Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism (South Africa)

Publication Date: 04/10/2017

Size of team/newsroom:small


Oxpeckers investigative associate Mark Olalde spent 19 months prying open secret information on mine closures and financial provisions for mine rehabilitation across South Africa. He submitted applications under the Public Access to Information Act (SA's version of FOIA) to nine different provincial authorities, in addition to the national Department of Mineral Resources, and had to harangue the officials for the data. He also had to decipher a complicated, shifting legal system surrounding who is responsible for mine closures and financial provisions for rehabilitation. When he finally received this never-before-seen data and analysed it, he was able to show that since at least 2011 no large coal mines operating in South Africa have been granted closure. This means the mines have not been rehabilitated and are simply abandoned, leaving a legacy of local and global pollution. The data also shows the largest mining companies hold the majority of financial provisions for rehabilitation (trust funds, bank guarantees). But these large operations rarely apply for closure certificates and almost never receive them. Without a closure certificate, liability cannot transfer from a mining company to the government and a mine is not considered legally closed. Further, as some extractive industries plateau or contract, junior miners that operate on slim profit margins are taking over the mines from the larger companies without sufficient funds for rehabilitation. This data journalism project was part of a series of investigations called AlertME undertaken by#MineAlert, a web-based mobile app developed by ScienceLink that alerts users to mining developments in their back yards. #MineAlert aims to promote public- and private-sector accountability in the extractives sector, to advance civil society and socio-economic rights, to protect the free flow of information, and to strengthen justice and equality. Our first abandoned mines investigation, published on 12/15/2016, released data on mine closure applications and licences in three provinces: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. Titled "Mine closures: what's happening in your back yard?", it shed light for the first time on South Africa’s secretive system of mine closures. Transparency and compliance monitoring have become increasingly pressing in South Africa's extractives sector with the growth of coal mining and the spectre of large-scale mining for shale gas, or fracking, in water-scarce, sensitive ecosystems. #MineAlert is a data- and geo-journalism project launched by Oxpeckers in April 2016, with the support of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa and Code for Africa. It is one of our innovative online platforms that combine traditional investigative reporting with data analysis and geo-mapping tools to expose eco-offences and track organised criminal syndicates in Southern Africa.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The story of extractives in SA currently centres around corruption and nepotism. Coal mining, shale gas extraction (or fracking) and uranium mining for nuclear builds are vigorously pursued by a beleaguered regime in economic turmoil. Until the Oxpeckers investigation, the scale and legacy of abandoned mines were unknown. Our first investigation, "Mine closures: What's happening in your back yard?", released data showing that zero closure certificates were granted to mining rights held in Gauteng, SA's economic hub. This investigation was discussed at a parliamentary meeting in February 2017. Referring to the data, the chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meeting on Financial Provisioning Regulations stated: "Nobody is doing rehabilitation on the mines – just mine dumps we are seeing all over Gauteng. Illegal miners (mainly from Lesotho) are fighting and killing each other there." Our second investigation released data from all provinces except Western Cape and North West. The Mail & Guardian, which also published the investigation (https://mg.co.za/article/2017-04-04-mines-left-to-pollute-the-soil), described the status of mine closures and soil pollution as "frightening to say the least". OSF-SA said: "... these mines are simply abandoned leading to illegal mining, pollution and the further degradation of previously arable land". Our third investigation, "R60-billion held for mines that never close" (http://bit.ly/2pT2wdc), liberated data and documents on financial provisions for mines across SA, with the exception of Western Cape. Unlocking this data helps to inform changing regulations governing environmental management of mining, called the One Environmental System – including how mine closure trust funds can be used, the tax implications of transferring funds among different types of financial provisions, and clarifying environmental liability. It is also being used by NGOs working on SA's new integrated energy strategy.

Technologies used for this project:

#MineAlert is a web and mobile app that alerts residents and organisations to mining applications and licences in their regions. It provides a centralised platform for users to access, track and share information and documents, and for journalists and interested organisations to conduct investigations of the extractives industry. The platform is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. #MineAlert is a custom-made app originally based on the prototype #GreenAlert app custom-made by Code for Africa (https://greenalert.oxpeckers.org/), which allows users to track environmental impact assessments and related developments. Key innovations of #MineAlert include: • Geocodes and cached addresses for easy mapping • Automated category assignment via keyword search • Subscription for alerts in specified areas and/or individual projects • Alert registration system based on current zoom view • Use My Location • Customised overlapping markers clusters to map multiple sets of data • Shareable links to maps • Google log-in and data uploading for trusted users • ‘Share’ buttons that allow users to type a comment / call-to-action with an embedded URL for sharing on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ • Sharing of documents, videos, photography and other inputs via a customised 'contact' button • Mobile optimisation • Journalism inputs by pulling investigative stories and from the oxpeckers.org home page • Data used for our investigations and shared on #MineAlert is hosted by Code for Africa, at https://sourceafrica.net/ and https://africaopendata.org/. These repositories enable us to host large amounts of documents and spreadsheets that are then embedded on #MineAlert. #MineAlert is one of the interactive platforms deployed by Oxpeckers.org that combine traditional investigative reporting with data analysis and geo-mapping tools to promote environmental journalism.


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