Right to mine coal in protected environment contested

Sep 28, 2015 | 2015, News

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), a non-profit environmental law clinic, has instituted legal proceedings in the Pretoria High Court against the previous Minister of Mineral Resources, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, after he granted a coal mining right to Atha-Africa Ventures (AAV) to mine within the Mabola Protected Environment in Mpumalanga. The Minister granted the right eight months after Pinky Phosa, then the MEC for economic development, environment and tourism, declared the area a protected environment based on its great hydrological importance and high level of biodiversity.

Mabola covers 8 772 hectares between Wakkerstroom and northern KwaZulu-Natal and is a high-yielding water catchment area composed mostly of wetlands that feed the Limpopo, Tugela, Vaal, and Pongola Rivers. The area is also made up of endangered grassland ecosystems that support endangered species and has been classified as a Strategic Water Source Area, a National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Area and an Aquatic Critical Biodiversity Area.

According to the environmental impact assessment report, AAV’s activities will dry up the wetlands, draw water from the subsurface water resources and pollute the streams that feed the rivers originating in the area. Seepage of acid mine drainage from the mine into the freshwater system is also highly likely and the damage done to the sensitive aquatic environment will be irreversible.

Catherine Horsfield, Attorney and Mining Programme Head at the CER, says: “The Minister’s decision to grant the right was unlawful because coal mining in such a strategically important area would result in unacceptable pollution, ecological degradation and damage to the environment. That being so, the mining right should never have been granted. Moreover, the fact that it is a protected environment means that commercial mining can only take place with the permission of both the Ministers of Mineral Resources and Environmental Affairs. No permission has been given by – or even sought from – the Minister of Environmental Affairs. Minister Ramatlhodi also disregarded the opposing views of the Department of Water and Sanitation and conservation agencies. On these bases we will argue that his decision should be set aside by the court.”

No doubt, the development of this litigation will be watched closely by several South Africans, as it progresses.