JOHANNESBURG - A sandy hill is all that remains of a Mintails gold mining operation, just outside Johannesburg.

Mintails, an Australian-owned company, is being sued, along with the government, for not cleaning up environmental damage at its mines.

The Federation for Sustainable Environment is taking the court action. The group’s director, Mariette Liefferink, says waste at the mines, including uranium, has released radiation on nearby communities and squatters.

"We do not hold the directors ourselves criminally responsible, but we do ask for the court to order the government to take action against the directors," Liefferink said. "So, we hope to achieve a precedent.”

Mintails was liquidated last year, leaving an unfunded environmental liability.

Meanwhile, the Department of Mineral and Energy Resources is seeking to avoid a lengthy legal process and wants to see the case settled out of court.

The department's Sunday Mabaso says a solution needs to be found.

Illegal mining issue

"We really would like to find a solution for the community, and we would love the mine to come back and work so that it can resolve the environmental challenges," Mabaso said. "And also resolve the issue of illegal mining in that area, which is now becoming a nuisance to the community and everyone in the surrounding area."

Nearby communities such as Tudor Shaft are exposed to radiation and toxic tailings, leftovers separated from the ore, Liefferink said.

“This was declared a radioactive hot spot," she said. "The radioactivity in this area is significantly elevated. This community has been exposed for decades, or more than a decade, to the dust fallout from the tailings storage facility, the physical risks from open-pit mining and blasting.”

Some Tudor Shaft residents have been relocated to safer areas, but many more have been left behind.

The absence of basic structures in this impoverished area is making life unbearable for Tudor Shaft residents, said community activist Lucas Mitsipitso.

"There is no infrastructure, no water, no electricity, and the community has been here since 1995," he said. "And we try to engage with different, you know, municipal departments, as far as this is a concern. And there was no luck, no answers in our proposals that we made in regard to relocation."

With the fate of the legal action filed by environmentalists unclear, the contamination surrounding one of the biggest gold reserves in the world appears unlikely to be cleaned up anytime soon.