Mpumalanga’s not-so-clean coal

Both nationally and internationally, the move away from dependence on oil has created a resurgence of interest in using coal to power our jobs, homes and lives.

While politicians and industry insist that coal is relatively clean, looking at Mpumalanga’s waterways suggests otherwise. The resource has been mined in the province for decades, leaving parts of Emalahleni and Middelburg covered in white sulfuric crust and red water, clear indications of acid mine drainage (AMD). Walking through Emalahleni’s Extension 4 and 5, the Mail & Guardian found nearly five kilometres of polluted water and land sitting metres away from houses and farms and originating from the deserted and unremediated Transvaal and Delagoa mine. Empty dams house centimetre-thick white crust and crystalised reeds, while active dams act as swimming holes for local children.

“The water is not good,” says a boy, who does not give his name. “When I swim in it, it tastes salty.” A test done by the M&G showed that pools of water sitting among the crust dotting the landscape had a pH of two, or pure acid. Levels of sulfates, or salts, reach as high as 6 000mg/L in some waterways of Emalahleni. Internationally, levels above 400mg/L are considered potentially hazardous to human health.

According to environmental activists, community members, and scientists, this is just the tip of the iceberg. To look at a prospecting map of Mpumalanga is to look at a sprawling mass of mining developments, spurred on by a rise in demand and price and encouraged by the Department of Mineral Resources [DMR]. One can barely see to the earth below, blotched as the map is with red and green, denoting mines that are already operational, or are set to be within a matter of months.

“The assault on Mpumalanga by applications to mine is relentless,” says Democratic Alliance MP Gareth Morgan. “The [water] catchments of that province cannot handle the number of new mining licenses that are being granted. The DMR grants individual licenses without consideration of the cumulative impact of mines on the environment … Determining what the maximum number of mines any particular catchment area can manage is an important project that has yet to be undertaken.”

Country ‘flooded’ by mining applications
Environmental lawyer Melissa Fourie of the Centre for Environmental Rights agrees. “We have this huge, completely unsustainable pressure to process new mining applications … [The country] is absolutely flooded with them.” According to the DMR, 75% of the South Africa’s electricity is coal dependent. The country is the third largest exporter of coal worldwide.

Mpumalanga is not only home to the country’s largest and most productive coalfields, but also acts as the source for some of South Africa’s major waterways. The Komati, Vaal, Crocodile, and Olifants rivers, responsible for supplying water to South Africa’s major dams and subsequently used for drinking water, agriculture, and industry, all originate within the province.

According to Koos Pretorius, a Mpumalanga farmer and co-director of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, all of these waterways are under threat as a result of increased mining operations. “From the Vaal, you have water into the Olifants, from the Komati you have water into the Olifants … from the Vaal you have water into the Crocodile,” he says. “They’re all interconnected. Whatever happens in one just starts a domino effect that runs on.”

Despite this, Mpumalanga has not matched its western counterpart of Gauteng in garnering terrifying headlines concerning acid mine drainage. But mining of both gold and coal “generates acid”, says Terrence McCarthy of the University of the Witwatersrand. “The gold mines have a lot of other metals associated, like nickel and cobalt and arsenic and uranium and so on … But coal is still bad, because acid is bad. If you go to coal mines, you’ll see that it acidifies the soils to the point that nothing grows. The water destroys the ecology of rivers. They get destroyed.”

“The coal mine in [Emalahleni] gives us an indication of what the future holds in coal mining areas,” continues McCarthy. “[Mining] has seriously impacted the local water supply, which means that the water … has to come from the Vaal dam, because the water from the Middelburg and Witbank dams are extremely poor,” says McCarthy. “With issuing permits in the Vaal catchment … we’re going to do to the Vaal what we’ve done to the rivers in the Middleburg area, the Crocodile River, the Olifants River. So we’re not going to have anything except the Lesotho Highlands [Water Project].”

Pretorius is especially concerned about new operations affecting the Limpopo River, which flows through Mpumalanga and eventually into the Indian Ocean. “If mines around Groot Marico [in the North-West] are allowed to go ahead, then that water will also get polluted … African Nickel has proposed to mine about 7 000 hectares at the source of the Limpopo.”

Pretorius notes that South Africa’s polluted water affects other countries in the region, given that the Limpopo flows through Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. “We’ve got an agreement with Mozambique and Swaziland which is not being implemented. We’re not letting the quality of water go through that we should let go through.”

Gauteng, South Africa’s economic heartland, is especially dependent upon Mpumalanga’s water: due to high evaporation and limited rainfall, the province looks to Mpumalanga’s rivers as a vital resource. An estimated 12-million consumers rely on the Vaal catchment for their water. Additionally, “60% of the economy of this country relies on the Vaal Rivers”, says McCarthy. “We are in the process of ruining that.”

‘Olifants has big problems’
While there is much debate over whether the Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s greatest tourist attractions, is in fact threatened, Pretorius contends that poor water quality in the province will affect the park. “The state mining company has got an application for 225 000 hectares … right in a conservation area which is on the Elands River and the Crocodile River. That could affect Kruger. And then you’ve got the gunk that comes from the mines in the Olifants River, which runs into the Olifants Gorge in the park. The Olifants has big problems.” While poor quality of one river may not affect Kruger, “it’s cumulative impact that is important,” continues Pretorius. “Kruger is also the last receiver of water … If the Department of Water Affairs [DWA] doesn’t enforce mines to properly clean their water, then [the park] is going to be … in big trouble.”

Coal-fired power plants pose another significant and under-appreciated problem, according to Pete Ashton of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. While most of South Africa’s high-quality, low-sulphur coal is exported, most of the lower-quality coal with a higher sulphur content is kept for use within South Africa. As a result, “our coal-fired power plants may be emitting as much as half a million tonnes of sulphur into the air each year”, Ashton explains. “If all or some of that sulphur comes down in our country, it will [do so] in the form of sulfur dioxide or sulfur trioxide, which will turn into dilute sulfuric acid.”

According to David le Page of the Sustainability Action Movement, “the air quality in Mpumalanga has been measured as worse than that in the former Eastern Germany, [which was] absolutely notorious for [its] poor air quality … Pollutants from coal-fire power plants cause lung cancer, asthma, heart disease.”

Morgan says that the government’s increased support for coal production is “tying us in to a carbon-intensive future for many, many decades to come”. While coal proponents contend that it is cheaper than other non-renewable resources, “if we factor in the full cost of coal mining in South Africa, including AMD, it would not be nearly as cheap as its proponents propose it is,” says Morgan. “No government energy planner in South Africa is prepared to do an honest assessment of the full cost accounting of coal,” he says.

  • This piece was made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa’s Media Fellowship Programme.

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