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The war between environmentalists and coal miners in Mpumalanga

Environmental groups determined to block a coal mining project on protected land have had to step up security for their employees.

South Africa has a shocking history of mines scarring the landscape and then being abandoned by the owners and left to nature’s slow but inexorable healing.

No more, says a group of eight environmental organisations, led by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which is attempting to stop Atha-Africa Ventures, backed by Indian investors, from commencing underground coal mining on a protected environmental area in Mpumalanga.

The Yzermyn Colliery in the Mabola Protected Environment, near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, was due to commence underground mining more than a year ago, until the CER applied to the Pretoria High Court for an interdict to freeze activity until the mining group had complied with various laws. CER claimed Atha-Africa did not have a valid environmental authorisation, nor did it comply with the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act, in terms of which the proposed mining site could only be used for agriculture and conservation.

Atha-Africa defended the action, claiming it had secured its licence before the Mabola Protected Environment, a portion of which covers the proposed mining site, was declared a protected environment. It also pleaded that the mine was designed to ensure minimal damage to the environment, with surface infrastructure located away from environmentally protected areas

The outcome of this case was that Atha-Africa agreed to give CER three weeks’ notice before commencing any mining activities in the area. More than a year later, mining has still not commenced, but the environmental groups are determined to make this a test case for environmental versus mining rights. If they fail in this case, they believe the door is thrown wide open for other mining groups to trample environmentally sensitive areas.

Atha-Africa argues that it is providing nearly 600 jobs, benefiting many more dependents, and will benefit the economy by selling a portion of the coal to Eskom, with the balance being exported.

“The impact of the unlawful commencement of mining activities on the Mabola Protected Environment and surrounding areas will be environmentally catastrophic and will cause irreparable harm to the environment and local communities,” said the CER in an affidavit to the court. The Mabola Wetlands was proclaimed a protected environmental area in 2014, in recognition of its importance in feeding the Limpopo, Tugela, Vaal, Usutu and Pongola Rivers. The environmental groups say the Mabola Wetlands is a strategic water source generating critical water supplies for downstream agriculture, industrial and human uses. It also falls within the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Area, and has been deemed a ‘high importance’ biodiversity area.

How then, did Atha-Africa manage to get a licence to mine coal in such a sensitive area?

It’s a question that has environmentalists scratching their heads. The reported backlog of mining licence applications at the department of mineral resources seems to have presented little trouble to Atha-Africa, which secured mining and water use licences with evident ease under then mines minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi.

At a press briefing in Johannesburg yesterday, CER executive director Melissa Fourie said Atha-Africa had allocated just R5.7 million for mine rehabilitation, which was nowhere near enough to remediate the expected damage to the surrounding water systems through acid drainage. Mining would also drain the wetlands and impact farming in the area.

The CER has launched a string of legal challenges against the mining group, including:

– appealing the department of mineral affairs’ decision to grant it a mining licence

– appealing the water tribunal to revoke the issue of a water use licence, and

– a judicial review of the decision by the ministries of environmental affairs and mineral resources to allow mining in a protected area.

Fourie says the CER has stepped up security for its staff after heated exchanges between pro- and anti-mining activists, both physical and online. On one occasion a group of pro-mining activists were bussed in to the site and disrupted an environmental briefing. Some members of the pro-mining group apparently became threatening, claiming the environmentalists were preventing jobs from being created in the area. The threats have been reported to the Minerals Council of SA. Environmental activism has its dangers: Pondoland community activist Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe was gunned down two years ago by unknown assailants, which some environmentalists believe was related to his opposition to mining mineral sands in the Eastern Cape.

An ecological assessment by Natural Scientific Services recommended against proceeding with the mining project, based on the threat to surface water resources and potential groundwater contamination. The damage would extend far beyond the proposed mining area, due to the likely dewatering of wetlands and acid mine drainage seeping into the water system.

The CER argues that the damage to water resources and farming in the area and downstream far outweighs any potential benefits from mining. “The organisations opposing this particular mine do so because the proposed mine would be inside a declared protected area and a strategic water source area,” says the CER in a statement. “It will threaten water security not only in the local area, but in the region. The damage that this mine would do to water resources cannot be undone. All these organisations are deeply committed to job creation and improving the quality of life of local people, but we also know that coal mining has devastated the lives, health and well-being of communities across the highveld.”

Says one environmentalist: “We haven’t seen one community that has benefitted after 150 years of coal mining in SA.”

The country has seen many coal mines come and go, but the environmental scabs they leave behind are often left for others to tend. The profits are privatised, the environmental costs are socialised. That may be about to end, if the CER and the eight environmental groups its represents have any say in the matter.

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The law requiring mining firms to keep deposits in trust for rehabilitation is a joke.

There is never enough held and the rehabilitation NEVER happens – NEVER.

Ever wondered where the rehabilitation reserve fund for Optimum Coal Mine has gone to? It’s all sitting in a bank account in Dubai under the name Gupta.

Q: “How then, did Atha-Africa manage to get a licence to mine coal in such a sensitive area?”

A: Simple really, you just cross the palms of a few connected cadres in positions of authority with silver, and there you go.

Coal is dying and no need to continue with it. Big banks are no longer supporting coal projects in many countries now

The law should be used to protect the 2014 initiative and can do so if applied. Fracking in both the Karoo and the KZN midlands has been halted just by applying the law and the ethics of Ecosystem preservation.
The same principles apply to the Mabola wetlands.

Wether or not AA received their license before the area was declared a Protected area is a seperate issue and should be under investigation for collusion under the Zuma government
Wetlands are vital Ecosystems: Ecosystems are the building blocks of the planet and are amongst the highest valued recourse we have.

All social up,iftment starts with a healthy environment, so if the ANC is serious about lifting the plight of more than 60% of South Africans, then this issue and all the other Environmental issues should be at the TOP of any agenda/ discussions/law creation.

The other side of the coin is raising electricity prices amongst others

The concerns are legitimate when one considers the damage done by the gold mines on the Reef and in the Free State, where the mining companies have left the problems for society to rectify at a still undetermined cost.
The benefits in jobs and to the economy are transitory insofar as the mines are depreciating assets and not long term sustainable operations, that certainly don’t justify the damage to environmental and scarce water resources, both of which are necessary for sustaining life.
If mining were to provide for the actual total costs that it inflicts on society, the products would be enormously costly and would promote the search for solutions that were sustainable and free from destructive outcomes.
As a country with one of the largest natural diversity of wildlife and nature left in the world, our economic planning should look to maximising sustainable economic activity, tourism being the most obvious. The job creation potential both from a tourist service point of view and from the environmental and wildlife protection standpoint could become a mainstay of our economy. Moving aggressively to greener sources of energy would also be a huge job creator. This coupled with a crash programme of educational development in which skills for the challenges of the near future, are instituted would pave the way for the automated industries and information industries that are on the horizon. The country has to move away from the old industrial models towards industries and activities that will sustain us in the new age that is on the near horizon. Being stuck in past thinking will make it certain that we will not cut it. and this government needs to bite the bullet and show some imaginative policy determination.

This is very typical of what happens when a dysfunctional criminal regime is voted into power. Contrary to what CER believe, it is actually the responsibility of the government to regulate mining not lobby groups via legal process.

Many economic activities involve externalities which may be negative (acid rock drainage from mining is one example, aircraft noise another and air pollution a third). Externalities are an example where the free market breaks down and government intervention may be required (there are also positive externalities). The government must supply an unequivocal framework in which the private sector operates and not move the goalposts at least not in a manner that creates uncertainty. It is the responsibility of the regime to regulate mining and rehabilitation of the land. Only once the ground rules are clear with property rights and security of tenure respected, will people invest.

Also contrary to what many believe one does not simply pitch up at a site with a bucket and shovel and start mining. Before the first sod is turned, a huge amount of money is spend on drilling, assays, resource estimates, EIAs, metallurgical testing, reports, raising money, plant and equipment and a plethora of miscellaneous consultants.

If the regime pulls the plug on this venture, this will be extremely bad for SA investment and the taxpayer will be on the hook for a rather large sum unless it can be proved that the mining license was obtained by anything other than due process. Those involved should face jail time in such a scenario.

Those who believe that mining is bad should look around them. Try to name something that was not grown in the ground, dug out the ground or sucked out the ground. The ANC has destroyed mining in SA – this is just another nail in the coffin of a once proud industry.

At the end of the day it is really about CER’s opposition to coal not saving wetlands.

“If the regime pulls the plug on this venture, this will be extremely bad for SA investment and the taxpayer will be on the hook for a rather large sum unless it can be proved that the mining license was obtained by anything other than due process. Those involved should face jail time in such a scenario.”

Yes, I agee totally. Now let’s go and mine all the coal underground in Kruger Park – and then under your house.

I won’t make any personal comments, but read my mind!

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