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Minerals ministry ignores its own advice on West Coast strip mining

The department of mineral resources has ignored its own environmental unit’s warning of “unacceptable pollution” and has gone ahead and granted a licence for a mine outside Langebaan in the Western Cape.

The mine, owned by Elandsfontein Exploration and Mining, wants to mine phosphate next to the West Coast National Park. During its projected 15 years of operation, it will excavate 78-million tonnes of ore. It will spend R1.3-billion on the project, with most of that going into the local economy.

Elandsfontein’s rationale is that phosphate is a strategic mineral and, with demand for fertiliser growing, the mine will boost the local economy.

But opposition to the mine has been widespread, from local groups to provincial and national departments. These objections were submitted to the minerals department and collated by that department’s own environment unit, but were overlooked when a mining right was granted in 2014.

That process started in 2013, when a draft scoping report was released for public comment. This gave a basic outline of what the mine was planning to do, and a brief overview of the possible effects of the mining. A more comprehensive environmental impact study was released the next September.

But this was then submitted to the minerals department two weeks later, in what court papers submitted to oppose the mining right describe as an “extraordinarily short period of time after the draft had been released for public comment”.

This meant the minerals department had a file with the pros and cons of the mine at that stage in front of it. The cons looked at issues such as the effect on water resources – the mine is on the Elandsfontein aquifer, which drains into the nearby Langebaan lagoon – and possible damage to heritage sites.

CapeNature, which runs the adjacent West Coast National Park, said in its objection: “When all of the impacts are considered cumulatively, the resultant overall impact of the mine on biodiversity can be considered unacceptably high. It recommended that a mining right not be granted.”

Heritage Western Cape said the nearby Varswater formation “is one of the densest sites of vertebrate palaeontology in the world”. Work was still being done to excavate the site and it had the potential to become a world heritage site, so mining should be avoided in the area.

The heritage body threatened to take the mine to court and eventually reached a settlement with Elandsfontein so both groups work to conserve the fossils in the area.

The water and sanitation department expressed concern about the effect on local water sources because the proposed site will be located on the Elandsfontein aquifer. In a water scarce area, underground water supplies local farms.

These objections led to a meeting of the regional mining development and environment committee on October  27. This is the body tasked with resolving disputes and ensuring information is shared before mining rights end up being challenged. At this meeting, the water and sanitation department said it was still waiting on a specialist report on water issues before it could comment on the mine’s application. CapeNature also objected and said it needed more information.

The committee said these objections would be sent to the Elandsfontein mine so it could supply more information. All of this would then be discussed at the next meeting of the committee. On November 19, water and sanitation wrote again to the minerals department to say it did not favour mining because of its potential negative effect on water resources.

West Coast National Park
West Coast National Park, Postberg Nature Reserve.

But a week later, on November 26, the director general of the minerals department granted the mining right. The paperwork for the right did come with a note stating that: “There are certain issues which are not fully attended to in the EMPR [environmental management programme]. Therefore it is recommended that the applicant [Elandsfontein] must address all concerns in due course.”

The legality of that decision – to grant a mining right before all the information is public and concerns have been addressed – is being challenged in court by community organisations from Langebaan.

The most significant criticism of the proposed mining came the next day from the mineral department’s own sub-directorate, mine environmental management. This unit looks at the information submitted for mining rights and the objections, and makes a decision on whether mining should go ahead. Its record of decision should inform any granting of a mining right.

It said the unit “believes that granting of this right would only result in unacceptable pollution, avoidable ecological degradation or damage to the environment”. By law, a mining right cannot be granted if it poses this kind of risk to the environment, the unit said.

It added that Elandsfontein had not supplied enough expert information for an informed decision to be made on whether a mining right could be granted.

The unit also queried the R45-million Elandsfontein said it would set aside for rehabilitating its site after the mine had stopped working. It said an additional R265-million would be needed. But it did not ask for the mine to come back with an update on this because “no explanation, recalculation or additional amount is requested as [we] recommend refusal [of the mining right application].”

Elandsfontein has responded to most of the concerns in public meetings and in responses to court proceedings. It has said that no mining will start until a water use licence has been granted, and that the concerns raised by other departments have been addressed in its specialist studies.

Given this, and the other objections, the local West Coast Environmental Protection Organisation lodged an internal appeal with the minerals department to halt the mine from going ahead. But that went unanswered and, in March this year, the group submitted court papers to ask for the same decision.

The case will be heard in mid-2017, by which time mining might have already started. Initial work on the infrastructure started in February. A water use licence was submitted in March and, once it is approved, mining can start.

The mineral resources department said it would comment later this week.

The Mail & Guardian will expand on this story throughout this week and in the paper edition on Friday

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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