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Challenge of another licence for proposed coal mine in Mpumalanga water source area off to court

November 30, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Refused. On Heritage Day 2016, community members from Wakkerstroom and surrounds gathered to form the words “Save Our H20” (Save Our Water) in support of the Mabola Protected Environment and in protest against the planned coal mine which is set to cause irreversible damage to the wetlands, pans and endangered grassland ecosystems in the critical water catchment area. Image: James Oatway for CER
Refused. On Heritage Day 2016, community members from Wakkerstroom and surrounds gathered to form the words “Save Our H20” (Save Our Water) in support of the Mabola Protected Environment and in protest against the planned coal mine which is set to cause irreversible damage to the wetlands, pans and endangered grassland ecosystems in the critical water catchment area. Image: James Oatway for CER

The Mpumalanga MEC for Agriculture, Rural Development and Land and Environmental Affairs has refused the appeal by eight civil society and community organisations against the environmental approval granted to Indian-owned Atha-Africa Ventures Pty Ltd to build a coal mine inside a protected area and a strategic water source area near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga.

The coalition challenging the MEC’s approval already has two other High Court cases pending against other approvals for the proposed mine. These are a High Court judicial review of the mining right, and a High Court judicial review of the Minister of Mineral Resources and Environmental Affairs’ decision to approve mining inside a protected environment. It will now also take its fight against the environmental approval to court.

In his refusal of the appeal, the MEC did not take into account the expert evidence submitted by the coalition challenging the mine that the mine will dry up the wetlands in the mine area, or the likelihood of acid mine drainage flowing from this mine.

Despite the coalition pointing out gaps in the information placed before the Mpumalanga provincial environmental department by Atha, and despite their submission of expert evidence to the contrary, the MEC decided that the mitigation measures proposed by Atha are adequate. For example, despite the fact that one of the main mitigation measures Atha proposes is a water treatment plant, there is no reference to it in the environmental management programme for the mine, let alone sufficient information about its design or capacity, or any stipulation as regards when it must be constructed.

Given that the proposed mine is predicted to cause acid mine water for 45 years after its closure, the absence of specific requirements for water treatment is a very serious omission. If the mine starts in 2017, mining will take place until 2032, water levels will rebound in 2077 and water treatment will continue until 2097. Against this background, it is worth noting that Atha has provided a financial guarantee for closure costs of only R5.758 million – inadequate for a coal mine in any environment, but particularly so in a sensitive environment.

Moreover, the MEC said that the mine was in line with South Africa’s invitation to Indian companies to invest in our mining sector, and that the mine would help to “develop export markets for South African products and services”. However, many experts conclude that coal demand has peaked and that any further investment in coal assets now risks stranded assets and also risks other supply viability as over-supply will drive down prices. The peak has happened due to growing concern about the health impacts of air pollution, climate policies, technology competition, reduced energy demand growth owing to energy efficiency and economies shifting from high energy intense industries to modern industries.

The MEC also assumed in his decision that impoverished local communities would benefit from the mine. Unfortunately, what the MEC did not take into account is that Atha’s own reports give no guarantee that jobs would be sourced locally. Instead, it states that “there is unlikely to be significant opportunities for the local population to be employed during the construction phase, and the opportunities are likely to be temporary” and there will be “limited numbers of unskilled, [and] semi-skilled employment opportunities”. The Atha report states that the 60 “skilled” jobs estimated to be created for the mine’s construction will not be sourced locally, and that 10 management staff will come from Atha’s Indian operations. Instead of relying on another coal mine to create a handful jobs in a sector that is on the decline, government should be leading a just transition away from coal, and training workers and unemployed people for jobs that last, and that build the low-carbon economy.

In addition to being a declared protected environment under the Protected Areas Act, the Mabola Protected Environment also falls within a strategic water source area that has been identified as incredibly important and strategic to protect in the interests of all South Africans. The proposed mine area is located in that part of the Enkangala Drakensberg strategic water source area which constitutes the headwaters of the Usutu River System, via the Assegaai River. The Assegaai River flows into the Heyshope Dam, from which water is inserted into the Vaal River System via inter-basin transfer. Accordingly, the mine area is a water source of the Vaal River System, which supports Gauteng’s water needs. The Usutu River flows through Swaziland and, after joining the Pongola River, flows into Mozambique, where it is known as the Maputo River. Accordingly, the health of the Usutu River System is also relevant to South Africa’s international obligations to Swaziland and Mozambique. All of these users will be affected if the sources of those rivers are compromised. Watch drone footage of the area here.

Atha was granted a mining right by the Minister of Mineral Resources in 2015, shortly after the declaration of the Mabola Protected Environment by the Mpumalanga MEC. Since then, Atha has received licences and approvals from the Mpumalanga environment department, the Department of Water & Sanitation, and the Ministers of Environmental Affairs and Mineral Resources. All these approvals have been challenged by the coalition through internal appeals, a High Court judicial review of the mining right, and a High Court judicial review of the Minister of Mineral Resources and Environmental Affairs’ decision to approve mining inside a protected environment. The coalition also successfully brought an interdict application to ensure that mining does not start without the requisite approvals.

The coalition consists of the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South AfricaEarthlife Africa JohannesburgBirdlife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Federation for a Sustainable Environment, groundWork, Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) and the Bench Marks Foundation, and is represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights.

Access copies of all the appeals and litigation in this matter here.

ENDS

For media enquiries, please contact:  Annette Gibbs, Email: agibbs@cer.org.za, Mobile: 082 467 1295

Section 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

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National Environmental Crimes & Incidents Hotline (24 hours): 0800 205 005

In addition, there are a number of national and provincial hotlines that may be useful.

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