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Open-cast· coal mine a threat to Springs wetland

Saturday, 03 June 2017 12:44
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WITH hands covered with liver spots, Stan Madden points out the expanse of Aston Lake glimmering  in  the  distance Fields of near-ripened meal­ies and clusters of soya beans stretch across this fertile, wet­land-sodden landscape on the outskirts of Springs

"This whole area is covered with farms and wetlands," enthuses Madden, his face creased with wrinkles.

"It's one of the finest areas in Gauteng for farming."

But perhaps not for much longer. A new mining rush is under way in Springs, where companies are eager  to  get to the coal that runs beneath Madden's feet.

In one of the latest bids, Pandospan, a subsidiary of Canyon Coal, on behalf of An­ glo Operations, is hoping to get the green light for its proposed open-cast mine, Palmietkuilen, right here.

For Madden, who is affe­ tionately known as the "Father of the Blesbokspruit", this could spell disaster for the wetland system he has fought to safeguard since "falling in love with it" in 1948.

And, at nearly 90, Madden still has some fight left in him. "The time has come when we have to say, as custodians of our environment, that enough mining is enough.

"In Springs we live with the polluted legacy of gold mining all over. We're left with the legacies from the horror of mining companies like Aurora Empowerment Systems.

"This hasn't given the Springs community any faith in mining. Now they want the coal too," he shakes his head, frustrated.

Coal miners such as Ngu­lulu Resources, Exxaro and Universal Coal have report­edly set their sights on the surrounds.

"There's vast reserves, but the coal is very poor quality."

He would know. Madden spent over 30 years  working at the Marievale Consolidated Mines, in the surveying depart-

ment. Anglo's environmental consultants, Digby Wells En vironmental, acknowledge the proposed Palmietkuilen project will have major negative impacts on the receiving environment.

Its latest final environmental impact assessment report speaks of the loss of important wetland habitat and "irreversible impacts on the land use" that will also displace  households.

Canyon Coal plans to mine at least 200 000 tons of coal a month over the next 53 years.

Locals claim thousands of people will be affected, but Canyon Coal dismisses some claims that as many as 10 000 people could be forced out as "sensation seeking".

Digby Wells Environmental says the wetland systems "play an important ecological role" as tributaries of the Blesbok­ spruit Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, and some of the project area is mapped as critical biodiversity areas.

In their written comments, affected maize farms like Schoeman Umbilo Boerdery, which contributes 10% of Gauteng's agriculture; tell how, "farmland can produce food for a nation for thousands of years - the life of an opencast coal mine is a drip in a bucket in comparison".

Large egg producer Rossgro too says coal mining impacts will "have a· destroying effect" on its broiler business. · "Clean air, minimum noise and uncontaminated water are key components to a chicken broiler and egg producing business."

"It will be a travesty ·of jus­tice if this open-cast coal mine is allowed to go ahead on this farm, · which produces  10% of the agricultural ,output  of Gauteng," says attorney Philip de Jager, who represents several communities in the coal mining fight. "It will cause the permanent destruction of some of the best agricultural land in Gauteng."

He has lodged appeals against the granting of a mining right to Canyon Coal for an adjoining  farm.

If it fails and a mining right is granted for Palmiet­ kuilen then "this will mean the communities of Aston Lake and Largo will be completely surrounded by open cast coal mines, which will have a major negative impact in Springs".

Michelle Winn, and her hus­band, Graham agree. They run a top equestrian facility, just outside Springs. "Look, our horses drink from our bore­holes. If that's contaminated, we've got a huge problem. They already don't like the water because of mining contamin­ation.

"We have 85 horses on our property, among them valu­able imported horses. If they can't drink, they'll have to move, which means our busi­ness shuts down. We already have  horses  with  lung  allergies, because of all these mine dumps."

Elias Letseleha, who lives in an informal settlement near the proposed mine, says many locals need work.

"We've heard rumours that we will be moved but we don't know for sure."

The report predicts ·there will be decant points into the surrounding environment and it is anticipated this decant will be acid-forming.

"These areas are in dir­ect contact with the sensitive wetlands of the surrounding landscape and are all wetlands drain in into the Aston Lake and surrounding wetlands.

"This represents major negative  impacts  to the wet­lands and water resources of the local area and catchment." In 1986, the .Blesbokspruit, which feeds the Marievale Bird Sanctuary in Springs and flows into the . Vaal was designated a  Ramsar  wetland  of   inter­national importance.

But it was- later placed on the Montreux Record because of  gold mining pollution.

The Anglo project has now endangered efforts, he says, to get it removed from the Montreux Record, spurred by the completion of the Depart­ment of Water Affairs and Sanitation's new acid mine drainage treatment plant at the nearby Grootvlei mine, which discharges partially treated mine water - with high sul­phate loads - into the Blesbok­ spruit. "We want it back to its full status," says Madden. "There's a lot of work being done by provincial state conservation authorities. I've been monitoring bird populations and they're going up, despite the pollution."

But the irony for De Jager and Madden · is that  in 2012, Anglo donated 750ha of land known as the Anglo Reserve, located within the Ramsar area to Gauteng, to have the area in­corporated into the Marievale Bird sanctuary.

"Taxpayers' money was used to erect the Rlbn AMD plant and will have to foot the bill to treat any further ;AMD from the proposed mine," says De Jager, in an angry recent letter to the Department of Mineral Resource's environ­mental directorate.

"It beggars belief that the applicant could donate its pristine reserve to the province, on the one hand, and then a few years later elect to commence with open cast coal mining, which could lead to the de­struction of the Ramsar site and destroy the huge potential for ecotourism in this new enlarged sanctuary."

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for Sustainable En­vironment, says the additional salinity from the proposed mine will result in "unaccept­able levels of salinity, profound and irreversible impacts on the Blesbokspruit's ecosystem and water security risks to the Vaal River system, including down stream water users".

Canyon Coal says it strives to conduct its operations "in the most . environmentally conscious way" to create "the smallest footprint possible".

Clifford HaJ.latt, its exploration and mine development manager, says the need for the project and its desirability as well as mitigation measures are clearly set out in the final EIA report.

"The report was finalised after all the concerns and objections raised during the thorough public participation was addressed and incorporated. It was made available to all inter­ested and affected parties."



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Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. 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"Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. 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