/ 25 February 2009

Coal mine threat to world heritage site

Prized world heritage site Mapungubwe, where the famous gold rhino statuette was unearthed, could soon have the scar of an open-cast coal mine on its doorstep.

The Vele Colliery project has sparked a row between the department of minerals and energy, which is driving it with single-minded determination, and the department of environmental affairs.

Mapungubwe is a protected site that forms part of the broader Limpopo Shashe transfrontier conservation area. Management of the park is also worried about the mine.

Answering a DA question on ­Friday, Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk told Parliament that, with the information available to him, he could not support the awarding of mining rights.

The project would have “detrimental environmental considerations” and “could further impact negatively on the ‘sense of place’ and tourism potential” of Mapungubwe, the Mapungubwe National Park and Greater Limpopo Shashe conservation area.

Vele Colliery is an initiative of Australian-owned Coal of Africa, which has signed a letter of intent to supply up to five million tons of coal annually from Vele and its sister project Makhado to steel giant Arcelor Mittal.

The company wants to start operations at the end of this year, but the minerals department must first give the go-ahead, including an environmental green light.

So far only a scoping report, which outlines the potential impact of the mine to be investigated, has been released. A full environmental impact assessment has to be conducted still.

Planned legislation will shift the responsibility for the environmental assessment of mining projects from minerals and energy to the environmental affairs department. The law, however, is still in its infancy.

Van Schalkwyk told Parliament that he had communicated his concerns about the mine to the Minerals and Energy Department. Apart from aesthetic and pollution considerations, he was worried about its possible impact on floodplains and wetlands.

He said his department “became aware of the proposed Vele Colliery at a very late stage in the process, when the Peace Parks Foundation brought it to our attention”.

DA environment spokesperson Gareth Morgan said the expected opening of the mine at the end of the year implied that the scoping report “is merely a cynical attempt to ensure procedural compliance”.

Morgan called on Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica to reject applications by companies wanting to mine in, or adjacent to, sensitive environmental areas.