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.