11 October 2019 at 4:24 pm
In January this year, the Coalition of civil society organisations who have been challenging mining company Atha Africa’s proposed new coal mine inside a Strategic Water Source Area in Mpumalanga, welcomed the decision of Mpumalanga MEC Vusi Shongwe to withdraw his notice of intention to exclude properties proposed for mining from the Mabola Protected Environment.
MEC Shongwe had published his intention to exclude the proposed mining area from the Mabola Protected Environment in October 2018, and called on the public to submit their comments and objections. The Coalition submitted a comprehensive objection to the proposed exclusion in December 2018.
Inexplicably, on 9 August 2019, MEC Shongwe again published notice of his intention to exclude the proposed mining area from the Mabola Protected Environment. The Coalition has now submitted a comprehensive objection to this second proposed exclusion.
That objection details how the 2018 exclusion notice was published days before the High Court hearing of the Coalition’s application to review and set aside the decisions of former Ministers Molewa and Zwane, under the Protected Areas Act, to grant Atha-Africa Ventures (Pty) Ltd (Atha) permission to mine in the Mabola Protected Environment.
On the strength of that notice, the MEC sought a postponement of the hearing. The High Court refused the postponement, with punitive costs against the MEC, and set aside the Ministers’ decisions, also with a punitive costs order – a judgment Atha has attempted to challenge 4 times – thus far unsuccessfully.
The Coalition’s objection asserts that publishing his intention to exclude the properties proposed for mining a second time smacks of an attempt by the MEC to circumvent the Ministerial permission required by Atha to mine in the Mabola Protected Environment – permission which must be sought from Ministers Creecy and Mantashe. There is no rational or justifiable basis for any exclusion, particularly in the light of available science and policy highlighted in the Coalition’s objection.
The Mabola Protected Environment was declared under the Protected Areas Act in 2014 as part of the declaration of more than 70 000 hectares of protected area in the Mpumalanga grasslands. This followed years of extensive research and planning by a number of government agencies, including the then Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency.
That declaration gave formal protection to this area; important from a biodiversity point of view and strategic from a water source perspective.
It is clear from the MEC’s Notice that the purpose underlying the proposed exclusion is to facilitate the development of Atha-Africa Ventures (Pty) Ltd’s (Atha) proposed Yzermyn underground coal mine.
The bases for the Coalition’s objection to the MEC’s proposed exclusion of the area include the following:
- It is an abuse of process by the MEC.
- The environmental impacts of the proposed mine include dewatering of aquifers and contamination of ground and surface water by acid mine water and other leachates in the Enkangala-Drakensburg Strategic Water Source Area.
- The National Development Plan seeks the implementation of the protected areas expansion strategy. A mere 8.9% of South Africa’s land area constitutes protected areas. The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, SANBI and the CSIR, amongst many others, are dedicatedly working to expand South Africa’s protected area network to preserve South Africans’ environmental infrastructure and services and to meet agreed targets. The MEC’s proposed exclusion will, if it proceeds, undermine South Africa’s existing protected area network and make a mockery of South Africa’s dedicated efforts at protected area expansion.
- Climate change impacts of the proposed Yzermyn mine, which the MEC’s proposed exclusion seeks to facilitate, were not considered when the objectives of the exclusion were formulated. Underground coal mines, such as the proposed Yzermyn mine, are large direct contributors to greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, particularly methane gas because ventilation causes significant quantities of methane to be pumped into the atmosphere. Methane is estimated to have a global warming potential 23 times higher than carbon dioxide.
- Atha has also not assessed what effect climate change will have on the proposed mine and accordingly on communities who are dependent on the natural resources that the mine stands negatively to impact. Without this vital information, MEC Shongwe cannot rationally suggest that promoting mining in the area would achieve the stated objective of sustainable development. From the information available, it appears that in stark contrast, mining activities would negatively and severely and disproportionately impact the environment and the socio-economic conditions of communities living in the area.
- Overall, the need and desirability for the proposed Yzermyn coal mine and coal mines in general, should be considered in view of trends related to declining coal demand from major export markets (particularly India and China), national and international climate change commitments, and the fact that access to coal debt and equity financing is becoming increasingly difficult.
- An analysis of the social and economic benefits which the proposed Yzermyn mine would have for the local communities reveals that they are in fact extremely limited. These limited benefits must be weighed up against the disadvantages of the proposed mine which would involve at the very least the following impacts:
- access to water compromised, through the drying up of springs because of a drop in groundwater; and
- access to clean water compromised, given the contamination of water resources by the proposed coal mine; and
- access to food through subsistence agriculture, grazing land, associated livelihoods, as well as agrarian lifestyle choices, clean air, health and wellbeing being compromised.
- A growing body of evidence that mining-affected communities are worse-off as a result of mining.
Catherine Horsfield, Mining Programme Head at the Centre for Environmental Rights, and attorney for the coalition says “The intended exclusion remains indefensible. Should the MEC persist with it, it will be taken on review to the High Court and likely set aside.”
The eight coalition members are the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa, groundWork, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) and the Bench Marks Foundation.
For media enquiries, please contact CER attorney and Mining Programme Head Catherine Horsfield on 021 447 1647 or [email protected]
Images by Sean Ripley and CER