Durban - Nearly three months after Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife was implicated in a R25 million project to rip up and drain a natural wetland, the national Department of Environmental Affairs has not made a final decision on laying criminal charges.

Responding to questions from The Mercury, the department confirmed yesterday that it had received written representations from Ezemvelo and three other groups thought to be involved in the “unauthorised” drainage and destruction of a large section of the Balamhlanga natural wetland in the Makhatini Flats near Jozini.

This followed an inspection by the department’s Green Scorpions environmental inspectorate on June 12 which found that a large central canal and several herringbone side canals had been dug into the wetland as part of an operation involving Ezemvelo, the KZN provincial Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, the Leomat Construction group of Richards Bay and the Nelspruit-based company Jamela Consulting Engineering and Project Management.

In a legal pre-compliance notice issued on June 15, the national Department of Environmental Affairs said there was reasonable ground to believe that the drainage was unlawful and had caused “significant environmental degradation” of the wetland, and the four parties could be held liable for several offences under national environmental and water protection laws.

The department said the damage was “exacerbated” by the apparent involvement of two government organs tasked with the protection of KZN’s natural resources, and also warned they could be held liable for criminal charges.

The department’s notice gave Ezemvelo and the other parties five working days to make representations on why a final compliance notice should not be issued, 20 days to appoint an independent wetland specialist and another 40 days to produce an independent report on rehabilitating the damaged wetland.

Responding to questions from The Mercury, the national Department of Environmental Affairs said it was reviewing the written representations received from Ezemvelo and the other parties before making decision to issue a final compliance notice or to press criminal charges.

Asked whether the department believed the illegal wetland drainage was linked to plans to establish a privately owned sugar cane biofuel refinery immediately adjacent to the Balamhlanga wetland, the department said: “Investigations in relation to this aspect are still under way.”

Although Ezemvelo has not responded to queries about its involvement in the illegal wetland drainage, government notice boards in Makhatini linked the nature conservation agency to a joint project to eradicate “invasive weeds”.

However, the Typha latifolia species it described as “weeds” were found to be an indigenous species of bulrush.

The Mercury