/ 25 June 2010

Scorpions sting colliery

Senior sources in the Department of Environmental Affairs have revealed that the department cracked down on controversial coal mining near the world heritage site of Mapungubwe last week, ordering the mining company, Coal of Africa, to stop all “illegal” building activities immediately.

But Coal of Africa denied receiving an order, saying that the company instead “received regular visits from a number of government departments”, including environmental affairs and mineral resources.

“Characterising such a visit by the Department of Environmental Affairs as a raid is unjustified,” said Riaan van der Merwe, Coal of Africa’s chief operating officer.

But environmental department spokesperson Roopah Singh confirmed on Thursday a “pre-compliance notice” was issued on June 18. She said Coal of Africa now has to make representations to the department about the mine’s transgressions.

The development has again highlighted tensions between environmental affairs and the mineral resources department over mining in this sensitive area of Limpopo. The mining department issued mining rights to Coal of Africa at the beginning of this year.

The Mail & Guardian understands that the directive, relating to building at the Vele mine that the department has not approved, followed a raid by the environmental police unit, the Green Scorpions, at the mine earlier this month.

The unit moved in to check whether Coal of Africa had built roads and other structures without the necessary environmental impact assessments. Sources in the department said that the Green Scorpions found several instances where Coal of Africa had ignored departmental regulations. They were also concerned about the clearing of bush on colliery property.

In a statement on Thursday Van der Merwe said the company had the necessary authorisation for bush clearing in the area covered by the mining rights. In addition, the necessary permits had been obtained from the national departments of agriculture and forestry and the Limpopo environmental affairs department. He also said that, although the company had not received permission from environmental affairs to build access roads, it was using the existing main road.

The Australian-owned company received a permit earlier this year for its Vele Colliery project next to the Mapungubwe National Park, where the world-famous 800-year-old gold rhino statuette was unearthed in 1933.

Though it has not yet started mining, it is constructing the infrastructure required to begin operations later this year.

In May the M&G reported that Coal of Africa had been clearing bush that contained baobab trees.

The colliery is 7km from the park’s boundaries. The coal-processing plant would be 27km from the world heritage site, Mapungubwe Hill.

Buyelwa Sonjica, the minister of environmental affairs, has openly declared her opposition to the mine and her department has refused to approve the environmental impact assessments for roads and fuel storage sites associated with the mine.

The company has signed a letter of intent to supply up to 5-million tonnes of coal annually from Vele and its sister project, Makhado, to steel giant ArcelorMittal. Opponents of the mining claim that the coal will be used to drive a coal-fired power station, Mulilo, that is planned for the region.

The department of mining did not respond to questions.