Court redirects Somkhele mining right expansion application back to the DMRE

16th May 2022 By: Donna Slater - Creamer Media Contributing Editor and Photographer

Coal miner Tendele Coal Mining reports that the Pretoria High Court, on May 4, sent the miner’s application for an extended mining right and environmental management programme (EMPr) for its KwaZulu-Natal-based Somkhele mine back to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) for reconsideration.

Tendele says the court’s decision means the mining right and EMPr remains in force pending the DMRE’s determination.

The court application by the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) and others sought to set aside Tendele’s mining right and EMPr – both of which Tendele needs to extend the life of the mine for another ten years.

If it cannot expand the operation, the Somkhele mine is due to reach the end of its life by June 30. It will have to close the Somkhele mine, retrench the remaining employees, cancel contracts with local service providers and place the mine on care and maintenance.

The Somkhele mine has been in operation for more than 16 years – in that time contributing R2.7-billion in direct benefits to local community members and benefiting more than 40 000 people, Tendele says in a statement.

To date, Tendele says the Somkhele mine has contributed more than R1.55-billion in salaries to employees, benefitting more than 15 000 people, while more than R80-million has been spent on community projects in the Mpukunyoni area.

In addition, the mine has spent more than R751-million on procuring services from more than 70 community-based entrepreneurs, benefitting more than 4 000 people, while the mine has also contributed to training 21 542 people over the past 15 years.

At full capacity, the Somkhele mine directly and indirectly employs more than 1 500 people, with 87% of these employees being from the Mpukunyoni community around the mine. Tendele says the minimum salary paid by it to Somkhele workers is R16 000 a month.

In March 2021, Tendele publicly conceded that the public participation process conducted during the application process for the new mining right and EMPr was imperfect, and that specialist studies conducted during the environmental impact assessment process did not adequately cover the entire area over which Tendele was granted a mining right.

Acknowledging these deficiencies, Tendele abandoned 92% of the area that was originally subject to the mining right, while the areas retained include three distinct areas where Tendele intends mining for a further ten years.

During 2019 and 2020, Tendele appointed independent specialists to conduct a further 26 environmental studies to assess the extent of the impacts of Tendele’s intended mining in these three retained areas.

These additional studies will be subjected to a public participation process and will be placed before Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe in the rehearing of the appeal.

Tendele intends to use the same mining methods at the expansion project as it did at the current mine.

As such, Tendele, in a statement, says its environmental assessment practitioner is confident that the intended mining operations in the three remaining areas will not cause “unreasonable environmental pollution”.

The impacts of Tendele’s operations are “clearly known and understood” and the proposed mitigation measures to be adopted by Tendele will “adequately address these impacts”, says Tendele in a statement.

Tendele’s mining activities in two of the three areas – the Emalahleni and Ophondweni areas – will only endure for between two and four years, the miner states. “Tendele will immediately, upon ceasing mining in these areas, commence with surface rehabilitation.”

Following this, Tendele will proceed to mine in the Mahujini area for about six years.

These expended mining operations will directly affect 18 km2 as a result of opencast mining by Tendele over a ten-year period.

Following the court proceedings, Tendele proposed to the judge in the matter that, taking into account Tendele’s concessions, the 26 new specialist studies and the significant reduction in the mining area, the mining right and the EMPr not be set aside, but that the appeal before Mantashe be reopened to enable Tendele to address the conceded irregularities.

Tendele says the irregularities have been significantly curtailed as a consequence of the abandonment of the majority of the mining area.

According to Tendele, the presiding judge said, “I have reflected on the parties’ cases including the reasons placed by the applicants. But this is a case that calls for pragmatism to guide the court.”