The goose chase - 21 January 2014

I should’ve gone straight to the guys on the EMG team. They’ve been down this road before. Instead, I Google each department to get their switchboard numbers and phone the ‘front desk’ to find out who I should send the query letter to. Gah! What a waste of time!

‘Send it to me,’ says a chipper sounding Thabang at the Department of Water Affairs' (DWA) call centre, ‘I’ll pass it on.’

I’m thrilled by his enthusiasm, but not convinced this is going to get me anywhere.

The Department of Environmental Affairs' (DEA) call centre hands me over to the ‘authorisations office’ in NEMA people (National Environmental Management Act) - because they deal with ‘environmental impact’ stuff.

The Department of Mineral Resources (DMA) is more obtuse. When I tell the switchboard I need to get some information from the department, they send me through to ‘legal services’.

‘Have you paid the fee and filled out a (something inaudible) form?’ the woman asks me.

‘Um… sorry… what form? And why do I have to pay money?’

‘If you want to request records under the Access to Information Act, you need to pay R35 and fill out…. (and her voice disappears again).’

I realise I’m being a bit stupid here, that I’m probably not explaining myself terribly well. But I guess your average member of the public wouldn’t know either. So by making this rookie mistake, I’m stress testing the system for the rest of us.

‘No no, I’m not after existing records, I want to understand if the department knows how it will deal with any pollution relating to fracking, should there be a spill into the water table.’

So I get sent through to an environmental officer who deals with health and safety issues. This is starting to have a ‘WTF’ feeling. I wish I had recorded the conversation because it sounded a bit like me and a Martian trying to order Chinese takeaways off of a menu written in Cantonese. Neither of us knew what the hell the other was saying.

It really doesn’t bode terribly well, though. Here we have a health and safety officer in the government’s mining arm, who was unable to piece together the link between ground water, fracking fluids and contaminating ‘spills’.