Posted on: August 23, 2011 Posted by: Diane Swarts Comments: 0

Vele colliery near Mapungubwe World Heritage Site had cleared a legal hurdle and could be producing a million tons of coking coal per year from late 2012.

The plan again has SA state sanction, following some months of envrio legal suspension. Environmentalists, including archaeologists to whom the medieval Iron Age Mapungube empire area is hallowed ground, had last year forced the Department of Environmental Affairs to reverse approval of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and permit, reports SHEQafrica.com editor SHEQafrica.

Coal of Africa Limited (COAL) said it had spent R600-m on Vele site and surface preparations after an initial licensing by DMR and approval by DME. Water use licensing by the Department of Water Affairs was in disarray at the time.

Conservationists claim that Mapungubwe park had cost the state an equal R600-m to develop, including a new interpretation centre.

COAL had adapted its EIA to address water source scarcity, water effluent impacts, and social impacts. Large unemployment in the area was one of the factors that swayed the DMR versus DEA (formerly DEAT) stalemate in favour of the miner.

Waterberg as future coal field

The shallow but thin Waterberg coal field covers a large area on the Limpopo river, raising hopes, and fears in the enviro, conservation and historic lobby, that the entire area, spoilt only by irrigation agriculture, could be covered by opencast and underground coal mines and cut by haul roads and a proposed power station and Chinese railway.

Coking or metallurgical coal is scarce in South Africa, required in the local metals industry, and in demand in urbanising and industrialising China and India. Arcelor Mittal holds shares in COAL.

Anglo Coal and Universal Coal, based in Australia like COAL is, also hold coking coal, low grade coal and earth gas prospecting rights in the area.

Miners versus ‘greens’

There are “dubious green NGOs operating in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, feeding communities with untruths, encouraging them to resist minerals development”, said DMR minister Susan Shabangu in a guest address at the Chamber of Mines AGM in Johannesburg last year.

The DMR versus DEA and ‘green’ coalition stalemate has since been partially resolved, but business concerns about environmental red tape, bureaucratic skills and capacity, departmental divides, as well as even handed enforcement, remain in many sectors, including exploration and mining.

Minister Shabangu said there was “scope for mining to work with NGOs, who ought to be providing guidance on mitigating negative impacts on the environment, but the methods of some NGOs are worrisome.”

She also hinted that environmental pressure could be abused, and her words now seem prophetic since hardening of battle lines between explorers and Anton Rupert’s environmental coalition over Karoo fracking.

“Let us not be deterred from our task by bogus environmentalists,” she said last year.

Coal rush not welcomed everywhere

A combined civil front of farmers, conservators, archaeologists, historians, public and DWE, had forced Coal of Africa Limited, COAL, and the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) to promise a legally ‘clean’ coal rush.

COAL had to suspend rushed groundwork and construction at Vele mine, adjacent to Mapungubwe World Heritage Site in on the Limpopo bank, following an equally rushed Environmental Impact assessment (EIA).

Howls of protest raised the spectre of water, air, and visual pollution, along with infrastructure development to industrialise the area and allow mining to creep east and west, eventually surrounding the unique archaeological site.

DWE and DMR, nominally in opposition to each other on the principle of allowing coal mining in the partly agriculturally degraded area, had both taken precautions against the inevitable public reaction by appointing junior officials to approve plans, withholding some official approvals, and issuing some warnings.

DWE forced work suspension at the site for lack of an integrated water license, although some other mines are in similar breach.

State, business and enviro sacrifices

COAL had also sacrificed its CEO as a ‘fall guy’ and appointed CEO John Wallington, a former Anglo Coal CEO, who takes every opportunity to speak the language of ‘rigorous compliance’ with enviro legal letter and spirit.

The new order mining right and environmental management programme remains in place, pending court challenge by a civic coalition, including Peace Parks Foundation, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Mapungubwe Action Group, Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists, World Wide Fund for Nature SA, Wilderness Foundation, and Birdlife SA.

Relative terminology

China and India’s need for coal, and Africa’s willingness to gain income and jobs, leaves the size of the environmental cost at the mercy of legal haggling over hazy terms like ‘activities in the 1:10 flood line of the Limpopo river’, ‘storage of dangerous goods’, ‘development footprint’, and ‘monitoring for compliance’.

The environmental case is equally argued in relative terms. The head of a decline shaft to an underground section is ‘near extended Middle Iron age sites’, and rock art in the area is sparse, but ‘insufficiently surveyed’.

Agriculture’s case suffers from devastation caused by bushveld clearing, ‘green deserts’ of single species, water use, pesticides, and runoff.

The scope of Limpopo coal mining is more specific. COAL is set to spend R571-m, planning to export 1-m to 3-m tons of coal per year from Mooiplaats, Woestalleen, and Mapungubwe, via Maputo in Mozambique.

Land claim uncertain

One of the largest land claim cases in SA is the Machete royal family’s bid for the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site. While not yet settled, the claim has been approved as valid, the Land Claims Commission said.

Limpopo Land Claims Commission officials said the community and Sanparks were ‘working together to resolve the claim’, while further instigation continues, reportedly with ‘billions’ at stake.

The general legacy of land claims elsewhere in South Africa, supposed to follow the shining example of the Bafokeng Tswana’s historic claim on platinum royalties, is a sorry saga of economic loss, employment loss, shady trust funds and empowerment of very few at the cost of may.

Mapungubwe park is earmarked as a transfrontier park between Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, including 56 surrounding farms. Mining may hinder or support the relevant politics and processes to realise a transfrontier park.

COAL rap in Mpumalanga

Coal of Africa JSE shares had dipped 16% last year after a Mpumalanga provincial order to rectify environmental management aspects at Mooiplaats colliery.
Mooiplaats colliery had lacked a pollution control dam, and had to submit a rehabilitation plan by an independent environmental practitioner, or accept a compliance notice and temporary stoppage.

• SHEQafrica is editor of Sheaafrica.com, a sheq media specialist, and a qualified environmental impact assessment auditor.

PHOTO; Gold foil clad figurines labelled ‘Mapungubwe menagerie grave goods’ are being restored by South African specialists, for UP’s Mapungubwe museum, thanks to a donation from the Fleming family of ‘James Bond 007’ fame. The famous rhinoceros figurine is now joined by an elephant, feline, bovine (on the photo), and parts of what look like a hippo and crocodile.

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