Environment

Nature calls – West Coast miners eye their prospects

Marie-Louise Antoni

A mining firm will have to convince locals that it won’t damage the biodiversity of the renowned tourist site

A view of West Coast National Park, part of the pristine biodiversity area that borders the proposed site for the mine. (Gallo)

It is hard to imagine “Putting nature first” as the slogan of a mining company. It’s a bold statement to make when it plans to strip-mine phosphate in an environmentally sensitive and internationally significant area. But that is what Elandsfontein Exploration and Mining claims it is doing as it sets out to mine on the border of the West Coast National Park.

The company, known as EEM, already holds prospecting rights, but obtaining mining rights will be a battle, because the minister of mineral resources can turn down or limit applications that affect critical biodiversity, heritage or areas of hydrological importance. The application is challenged by all three aspects.

But the company is confident about its prospects. “From a legal standpoint, we believe it will be compliant. We’re legally within our rights to proceed with the application,” said Michelle Schroder, metallurgical manager and spokesperson for the mine.

The site falls within the biosphere reserve and lies on the West Coast, just over an hour north of Cape Town. An aerial view shows an expanse of green pooling out from the Langebaan lagoon, spreading inland to the town of Hopefield about 30km away. Much of this land belongs to the park, which is world-renowned for its flora and birdlife, and the lagoon is an international windsurfing mecca and vital to tourism.

Every year, the park attracts more than 200 000 tourists and creates 20 000 permanent jobs, indirectly sustaining about 100 000 people.

The proposed mine lies at the very heart of this area, in the park’s buffer zone, within a critical biodiversity area (CBA). About 400 hectares will be actively mined, and another 220 hectares have been set aside for further development. And the deposit is mammoth – the second largest in the country – with ore tonnage weighing in at about 90-million.

The local economy has traditionally been supported by more sustainable industries such as agriculture, fishing, conservation and tourism, and the site falls well outside the Saldanha Bay industrial development zone.

The property is zoned for agriculture and was previously a private nature reserve separating two portions of South African National Parks (SANParks) land. It was considered vital to the park’s expansion strategy and earmarked for a biodiversity corridor, which is why SANParks has tried to buy it over the years.

The region is generally water-scarce and the company will be using groundwater, some of which will be pumped back into the system. There are two important aquifers in the area, one of which is believed to seep into the lagoon, which is internationally protected for its wetland ecosystem as a Ramsar site.

“We’re looking at water very closely with the department,” said Schroder. “We’re trying to understand what our potential impact might be and how to mitigate it.”

About 3km to the east lies a rich fossil deposit. A fossilised skull known as the Saldanha Man was found there in the early 1950s. It’s the oldest known human fossil found in the Cape, estimated to be between 400 000 and 700 000 years old. The find brought international attention to the area.

Middle and Early Stone Age tools of more than a million years in age have also been found, and the site is of global significance. Dr David Braun, who holds the research permit for the archaeological site, noted in a study that the area is “one of the richest sites of its kind in Africa”.

The proposed mine’s infrastructure will also require waste treatment facilities, a slimes dam and power lines, as well as an 18km pipeline to the port in Saldanha. This will run over neighbouring properties, many of which are also CBAs.

But EEM says the deposit is strategic and that, although there isn’t a current shortage of phosphate, global demand is rising. Phosphate is used in agricultural fertilisers, and the company says it is critical to food security.

Between 300 and 400 jobs will be created and 80% of the labour force will be locally sourced. The current life of the mine is estimated at 15 years. The company says it will develop skills and is also looking at bursary schemes for science students at various tertiary institutions.

“We want to move away from the perception that mining is a filthy, dirty thing,” said Schroder, adding that the company is planning significant offsets and rehabilitation.

“There will be better conservation in the area if we mine than if we don’t,” she said, saying that there will be a 10:1 offset ratio. “Environmental impact has been a critical driver in our decision-making, and we’ve employed the best experts. The net effect is positive.”

When asked whether the application is a difficult one, Philip le Roux, technical manager for the mine, said: “No, not at all. We’re following the letter of the law. We already have prospecting rights and have also received departure from the municipality.”

But has the company done enough to inform those it says will benefit from the mine – the very same people who, should the operations not go according to plan, will be saddled with the consequences?

Le Roux believes it has. “We followed the law. We advertised,” he said. “We’re working with all organs of state and government departments, as well as different organisations. We’re saying: ‘Please come and monitor us so that we can comply.’”

The current process falls under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, and Le Roux said the company is bound by the mineral resources department’s regulations. These state that companies must consult stakeholders and submit their first scoping report within 30 days of notification. “We were expecting a response from the department in January, but it came through in December,” he said.

However, documents show that the company submitted its application on December 9. By law, the department has 14 days to reply, which means the company would have had a response by Christmas Eve at the latest.

In reality, though, the department responded the very next day. But EEM only published its notices on December 19, more than a week later, and well into the holiday period. These notices were placed in two newspapers, alongside a telephone number that did not work.

The mine’s environmental consultant, Olivia Braaf, was notified of this error. She apologised, saying it was a technical fault, but by January 8 it still did not work, even though the deadline for public comments to be included in the first submitted scoping report fell on the same day. But Braaf maintains that the process was legally compliant and that contact could also have been made by email, post or fax.

At public meetings held in Hopefield and Saldanha on January 6 and 8, respectively, several stakeholders complained. One even asked for a letter to be written to the department to request an extension, but instead, project holding costs were cited. The company did say, however, that concerns would be raised with the department.

But meeting minutes submitted to the department on January 22 do not mention these discussions, nor was a written objection, dated January 20, included in the report. In fact, the report specifically states that no objections were made. Braaf claims that the written objection did not apply to that stage of the process, but adds that objections have now been included in the final scoping report.

Furthermore, in EEM’s submission to the department, the company states that it intended to hold two sets of public meetings during the scoping phase, but only one set was held. A further environmental impact assessment meeting was scheduled for May this year, but has not yet taken place.

“This is just the start of the process,” said Braaf. She added that the department’s guidelines state that consultations do not end after 30 days. “In fact, further in-depth consultation is required to more substantially inform the environmental impact assessment and environmental management programme. There will thus be ongoing consultation through the process with interested and affected parties and key stakeholders.”

Tracey Davies, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said that public participation in mining rights applications is extremely important. “The process takes on an even more significant role when the mining is likely to affect biodiversity priority areas,” she said, referring to the 2013 Mining and Biodiversity Guideline. “The guideline makes it clear that in such cases there may be a greater number of stakeholders interested in and concerned about the proposed activity.”

The 2002 Consultative Forum on Mining and the Environment created a set of public participation guidelines, which were sponsored by the Chamber of Mines. The forum said consultations don’t only benefit the public. When properly conducted, they also benefit mining companies, enabling them to prove due process, which adds to their credibility and is ultimately less costly.

And although there is no blueprint process, the guideline repeatedly uses the example of “an open-cast mine bordering a national park” as an example of where public sensitivity would be high. It also says that public sensitivity heightens with issues such as water catchments, archaeology and areas such as conservancies, nature reserves, national parks, Ramsar sites and heritage sites, and particularly for new developments in previously undisturbed areas.

These guidelines (confirmed by the 2013 Mining and Biodiversity Guideline) include a public sensitivity matrix, ranging from very low to very high. Because of the tangle of factors to be considered, the mine’s application could fall under the “high” to “very high” categories.

This would mean extensive public consultations, media releases and radio announcements, and between 200 and 400 stakeholders should be identified (or, depending on its classification, between 1 000 and 3 000). Currently, the company’s publicly released database contains just under 200 names, about 30 of which appear twice or even three times.

“We looked at the guidelines but at the end of the day, decisions are made by law,” said Le Roux. “In my opinion, we’ve sat down with the best experts. We’re making decisions and 90% of them are based on environmental reasons, for the least impact and to the benefit of everybody.”

Schroder said: “We’re aware of the guidelines, but have not taken them into account at this stage. We believe we can mine responsibly. We’re taking conscious decisions that are not necessarily cost-effective but that are the most environmentally safe.”

The company has now released its scoping report, and will submit its environmental management programme report on June 10.

This means these two phases were run almost concurrently, whereas the guidelines specifically recommend two distinct phases so stakeholders can ensure their concerns are addressed.

The guidelines remind us that stakeholders “contribute essential local knowledge and wisdom” and that these processes help to “clarify the degree to which they are willing to accept or live with the trade-offs”.

These guidelines are “soft law” and difficult to enforce, but proper consultations would help to demonstrate good faith – and give more credence to the company’s slogan of “Putting nature first”.

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