A large coal mine on the western boundary of KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve has been fined nearly R500 000 for operating illegally for almost 10 years, and now hopes to carry on operating.
However, environmental groups have questioned the “slap on the wrist” fine and demanded a full legal investigation before the Zululand Anthracite Colliery is allowed to continue its mining operations.
Responding to queries from The Mercury, the colliery’s general manager, Mario Jansen van Vuuren, confirmed that the company had paid a fine of R497 000 earlier this year to the provincial Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, after what he described as “an administrative oversight dating back to 2006”.
However, according to a report prepared by its environmental consultants, the company had unlawfully set up three new mining shafts and a coal storage dump over the past 10 years without obtaining environmental approval.
In terms of the National Environmental Management Act, the company can apply to have its unlawful activities “rectified” retrospectively by paying an administrative fine.
The company, owned by Rio Tinto subsidiary Riversdale Mining, has been operating the coal mine since 1985 on the banks of the Black Imfolozi River, which flows into the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site.
Two years ago, Rio Tinto announced that it would sell the Zululand coal mine to the Forbes and Manhattan Coal Corporation, but this agreement was cancelled last year.
According to the company’s environmental consultants, GCS Water and Environment, the Zululand Anthracite Colliery established its new Deep-E mine shaft illegally in 2006.
In 2008, it established the Western Extension mine shaft illegally and the Nqwabe Reserve mineshaft illegally in 2010.
A large stockpile of coal at Nqolothi Siding, set up about 21 years ago, had also been operating unlawfully since about 2004.
The environmental consultants also indicate that the three unlawful mines used about 6.8 million litres of water each month, without an integrated water-use licence from the Department of Water Affairs.
Although no specialist reports have been made public, the consultants also acknowledge that water from the illegal operations may have polluted groundwater with toxic chemicals and there was also a potential for acid mine water to flow into local rivers from the Western Extension mineshaft.
Responding to the mining company’s application for rectification of its unlawful activities, environmental activist Wally Menne has called for a “full and impartial legal investigation” and public consultation process before the application is considered.
Menne said it was not acceptable to simply “rubber stamp” the illegal mining operations and allow them to carry on. Before it was given permission to continue operations, it was important to establish whether the mine had rehabilitated the older mining areas, including any acid mine drainage.
“Whether the payment of a R497 000 fine constitutes a slap on the wrist or not, depends entirely on whether the misdemeanours the Environment Department allowed the mining company to get away with, generated a profit of a greater or lesser monetary value than the fine itself,” said Menne.
“From my experiences with another Rio Tinto owned mining operation, RBM, the government tends to give a lot of leeway when it comes to forgiving ‘mistakes’ and turning a blind eye to what are considered ‘minor’ infringements of mining conditions especially in respect of pollution.”
The Mercury also sent queries about the fine to the provincial Department of Environment Affairs, but has not received a reply.