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Another coal mining license challenged for breaking environment code

The Mpumalanga MEC for Agriculture, Rural Development and Land and Environmental Affairs, Vusi Shongwe, 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.

According to the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), 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.

“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,” said CER.

Environmental warnings

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,” said CER.

The environmental health group, noted that the MEC said the mine was in line with South Africa’s invitation to Indian companies to invest in South Africa’s 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 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.”

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.

The coalition consists of the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, Birdlife 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.

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