JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – India-owned mining company Atha Africa Ventures is set to engage in a public debate with the community to discuss the potential impacts and remediation of a proposed coal mine near Wakkerstroom, in Mpumalanga, on Friday, June 29.
This open forum community-oriented debate will allow all parties, which encompass the community, Atha Africa and those opposed to the development of its Yzermyn underground coal mine (YUCM), to directly address the community to allow it to take a more informed view of the development and the surrounding processes.
Responding on behalf of its clients, a coalition of eight civil society and community organisations, public interest attorneys the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) declined the invitation to attend the public debate, explaining that, with a series of court applications and other legal challenges pending against the decisions of various authorities, it was not appropriate to debate the matter with the mining company as proposed.
However, the CER and its clients have extended an invitation to a delegation from the local community representative council of the Dr Pixley Ka Isaka Seme municipality, to attend a meeting in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga.
The CER explains that during this meeting, it and the coalition it represents, aim to share with the representative council “detailed presentations on the reasons for our opposition to the proposed coal mine and visit some of the communities around Emalahleni in which coal mining is already under way, or where the impacts of coal mining are evident”.
Atha Africa hopes nongovernmental organisations that are opposed to the project will use the forum to engage with the community, and for all parties to find ways to accommodate the developmental aspirations of the community within the principles of sustainable development, the company said in a statement last week.
The public forum takes place after a three-year-long legal battle between Atha Africa and the coalition regarding the proposed YUCM development.
The miner has since contested several allegations levelled against it by the CER.
These allegations, Atha Africa senior VP Praveer Tripathi tells Mining Weekly Online, relate to several factors regarding the proposed coal mine and “contain a number of factual errors and misrepresentations to sensationalise and spread negative sentiments against the mine development among the general public at large”.
The CER, however, says it and the coalition’s statements were based on a range of reports and information relevant to the matter, including government scientific reports and plans, some of which include, but are not limited to, the Mpumalanga Biodiversity Sector Plan, the National Protected Area Expansion Strategy, Spatial Development Frameworks, the Mpumalanga Protected Area Expansion Strategy, as well as the Atlas of National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas in South Africa.
“The legal challenges our clients have launched against the decisions to issue the various licences are based on this analysis and expert reviews and describe in comprehensive detail why and how those decisions are flawed,” CER mining programme head Catherine Horsfield tells Mining Weekly Online.
Further, the CER says the declaration of the Mabola area, where the proposed mine is located, as a protected environment was to prevent further degradation of the natural areas and to maintain and conserve the biodiversity there.
The CER, in a release earlier this month, lamented that the Mpumalanga Department of Environmental Affairs and the MEC had granted environmental authorisation to Atha Africa despite the “longstanding recognition of the strategic environmental importance of the area, specifically as a water resource and for biodiversity, by various government departments and agencies, supported by government-funded research”.
The environmental authorisation for the proposed mine, Tripathi avers, was granted considering all of these factors.
He further seeks to refute the CER’s claims that “mining will dry up the numerous wetlands and headwater and mountain streams in the area”.
This, he explains, is only a potential possibility moving forward. “There are possibilities of acid drainage, but this has been mitigated against. We do have a plan on how to deal with it, if it does occur”.
He adds that the on-site geological conditions do not need sulphides or have to lead to acid mine drainage.
However, Horsfield says that the coalition’s independent geohydrology expert is of the view that, particularly in view of the sensitivity of the area, Atha’s experts had not done sufficient research to assess the risks of acid mine drainage and an increase in the salt load.
Further, Tripathi highlights there have been about 18 mine sites within the same area, “which have not affected or depleted any kind of water quality”.
Contrary to this, Horsfield says the CER is aware of only one small-scale mine, the so-called Loskop mine, in the Mabola Protected Environment.
This mine, the CER adds, was started decades prior to the South African government gaining the scientific knowledge it now has on the sensitivity of the area, and also before the legal tools existed to protect the area.
In the meantime, Atha Africa plans to install a water treatment plant, should acid mine drainage occur. The water treatment plant will, in turn, support water security in the area.
Tripathi further counters the claim that Atha Africa failed to provide financial security for the future treatment of polluted water and that the miner failed to consider the greenhouse-gas emissions of the proposed mine, as well as its climate change impacts.
“The calculation of financial provision was done in the legal requirements specified,” he explains, “Atha Africa clearly provided for the future treatment of water in its calculations, based on the scientific model available”.
“The unsubstantiated assumption that future treatment must be done in a specific manner and only then will there be financial security, is a matter of unsubstantiated opinion. Greenhouse-gas emissions were assessed as part of an air quality impact assessment”.
Horsfield, however, states that while Atha’s experts accept that there will be water contamination and AMD, the mitigation measure proposed in relation to this impact has not itself been assessed.
“There has been no groundwater modelling done in order to determine the likely quality and quantity of decant. It is therefore not possible to determine whether the contaminated water can be treated effectively, or what the effects will be on the wetlands which will receive the treated water,” she explains.
Additionally, Horsfield says that the Water Use Licence does not contain an authorization for water treatment plant post closure of the mine and that Atha has not made financial provision for a water treatment plant in the Emalahleni protected area.
Tripathi also highlights to Mining Weekly Online that the local communities will not experience restricted access to water, as “the impacts are limited to the physical mining property, where the local community does not reside”.
Contrary to this, the CER, in its release, stated that water access would be restricted since the mine would cause groundwater levels to drop and springs to dry up. Water, the CER reiterates, also runs the risk of being contaminated.
“All of these issues will be thrashed out before the Water Tribunal in July,” says Horsfield.
She also points out that the full cost of water treatment has not been included in the financial provision that Atha has put up.
“The amount of R304 966 to address water treatment and restoration of wetlands can only be described as inadequate by orders of magnitude,” says Horsfield.
In terms of job creation, Atha Africa advised that of the 576 jobs to be created through the development of the mine, 417 will be sourced locally.
The remaining jobs will be occupied by the more highly skilled personnel such as artisans, foremen, shift and mine overseers, as well as mining and mechanical or electrical engineers, who will be sourced at a national level.
Tripathi explains that it has been conveyed to the community that, where practical, employment will be sourced locally with the intent to develop local skills required for the mine.
Horsfield points out that Atha’s own reports on the proposed mine state that the lack of skills in the local area will make significant employment of local people, unlikely.
From a community perspective, community representative Thabiso Nene tells Mining Weekly Online that the community is in favour of Atha Africa’s proposed mine development, as it will bring not only job opportunities, but will also allow the community to experience the benefits of an increased service demand.
He says the community is currently not benefitting from its own land, which is part of the reason it supports Atha Africa’s mine development plans. This will, however, not be supported at the environment’s expense, he warns.
Nene has questioned why the CER has not met with the community.
Although CER and various of its client organisations work in or have visited the area on many occasions and met with a number of local people, Horsfield explains that, in this legal challenge, the CER are not attorneys for communities in the Wakkerstroom area.
“The CER are the attorneys for a coalition of eight nonprofit, public interest organisations who believe that the long-term defence of protected areas, strategic water source areas and biodiversity in this area is in the public interest,” she explains.
These organisations are the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Birdlife South Africa, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, Mining & Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa, Federation for a Sustainable Environment, Bench Marks Foundation Association for Water and Rural Development and groundWork.
WATER USE LICENCE
In the meantime, the CER explains that its clients’ appeal against the issuing of a water use licence to Atha Africa will be heard by the Water Tribunal next month.
“Our clients’ application for the review of Environment Minister Edna Molewa and former Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s decisions to give Atha Africa permission under the Protected Areas Act to mine in a protected environment will also be heard by the North Gauteng High Court in October,” Horsfield tells Mining Weekly Online.
CER’s clients in May launched an application for the review of the environmental authorisation issued to Atha Africa by the Mpumalanga environment department.
Both these court applications include an application for an interdict to stop Atha Africa from starting mining activities, pending the outcome of those applications.
“We and our clients are of the view, based on the science, that this proposed coal mine should not be allowed to proceed at all. Consequently, our instructions are to take all of the legal challenges of this proposed coal mine in a strategic water source area and protected area to the Constitutional Court, if necessary,” Horsfield concludes.