Parliament asked to probe Mokonyane about mine’s water-use licence for wetland

Nature conservationists in Mpumalanga have turned to Parliament in their attempt to preserve 14 300 hectares of wetland known for its birdlife, farming and trout fishing and part of the newly proclaimed Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment.

A mining rights licence for the area was granted in December 2012, which is still the subject of an internal appeal. Meanwhile, Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane has revoked the suspension of a water-use licence, allowing the mining company to clear out trees, make roads, move equipment on to the land and create dams for polluted water.

The Escarpment Environmental Protection Group and Birdlife South Africa lodged appeals against the mining rights licence granted to the William Patrick Bower (WPB) mines operating between Dullstroom and Belfast. An appeal was also lodged about the licence granted to WPB to use water. But neither of the appeals has yet been heard because of a tribunal backlog, and the licences remain in place.

The National Water Act automatically suspends a mining company’s water-use licence when an appeal is submitted but empowers the minister to lift the suspension at her discretion. Using this discretionary power, Mokonyane chose to give WPB Colliery the green light to begin mining operations.

The Centre for Environmental Rights has written to the chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on water and sanitation, ANC MP Lulu Johnson, asking for an urgent investigation into Mokonyane’s decision.

“We believe that the lifting of suspensions without good reason is a neglect of the duty to protect water resources and undermines the objects of the National Water Act of 1998, and the authority of the [water affairs department’s] Water Tribunal. We therefore ask the committee to investigate the matter urgently,” the centre’s director, Melissa Fourie, wrote in July.

The committee said it had not yet taken a decision on the centre’s request..

The mining area, made up of mostly privately owned farms, was declared a protected environment by the provincial government in April after the Escarpment Environmental Protection Group and Birdlife South Africa also filed an appeal against Mokonyane’s department granting the water-use licence in October 2015.

In a letter to the conservationists, Mokonyane said her decision to lift the suspension was because it was “highly prejudicial and detrimental to WPB Colliery’s lawfully obtained authorisations”.

She said the project plan was “very thorough, expensive and detailed”, and the suspension would “derail the entire project timelines and create uncertainties”.

“It shall put millions of investments at risk, as well as forego much-needed jobs and community development,” she said.

Mokonyane’s reasons for lifting the water-use licence suspension also included a request from several community forums in the Emakhazeni local municipality to allow WPB to resume preparations for mining. These communities, Mokonyane said, will benefit from jobs.

But Peter Ardene, Escarpment Environmental Protection Group member and the director of a Dullstroom trout farm, said the site was partially surrounded by the Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment and one of its aims was to promote ecotourism in the area.

“The opening of an opencast coal mine will have a devastating effect on the tourist industry and the 1 100 permanent jobs and about 280 part-time jobs, mainly [for] black [workers], created in the Dullstroom area. It should also be noted that any coal mine also has a severe impact on nearby agricultural production and the jobs that go with it, which probably outnumber the hospitality jobs.”

Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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