KwaZulu-Natal - The provincial environment department has been accused of violating the law and abdicating its responsibility to safeguard the environment by approving one of the most “harmful environmental activities that can be imagined” next to the tourist town of Mtunzini on the Zululand coast.
Attorney Norman Brauteseth makes this accusation in an appeal document on behalf of Mtunzini residents and the local conservancy. He called on provincial Environment MEC Meshack Radebe to overturn the opencast mining approval granted two months ago to multinational mining group New Tronox and its local partner, Exxaro KZN Sands.
New Tronox and Exxaro hope to mine zircon, ilmenite, rutile and other heavy minerals in a 4 400-hectares lease area, including land just 100m from the town.
Under environmental legislation, Radebe has legal authority to accept or reject decisions his department has made after hearing interested parties’ objections.
Brauteseth said in his appeal document to the MEC that the department appeared to have accepted “manifestly wrong and totally misleading” statements by the mining company and accepted promises that the company would tidy up the mess left behind, when there was no evidence it could rehabilitate the area properly once mining was complete.
Referring to a last-minute proposal by New Tronox to acquire other “offset” land in the vicinity of Mtunzini, Brauteseth said: “If the department’s approach is to be countenanced, it will mean that an applicant can simply throw a sum of money at the department and say: ‘There you are, give me an authorisation and we will sort out the details later.’ That is not, and cannot be, the approach of any proper offset policy.”
Offsets are a mechanism by which alternative land is acquired for environmental protection as a way to compensate for site-specific environmental damage which cannot be avoided or mitigated.
Brauteseth argued that the mining company had tried to mislead the department into believing that a similar mining proposal had already been approved and assessed almost 12 years ago, convincing the department it was not necessary to conduct a full environmental impact assessment (EIA) with public participation.
Instead, the department agreed to a basic assessment report (BAR), a considerably shorter and less rigorous process.
Brauteseth said the updated mining plans next to Mtunzini had metamorphosed considerably, involving a much larger area and a tripling of production volumes, compared to the original plan.
“Heavy-mineral surface mining is probably one of the most potentially harmful environmental activities that can be imagined.
“To suggest a BAR is adequate to properly inform an assessment for so significant a project is untenable. The stakes in this assessment are too high to leave anything to chance.”
He said there had been no proper public scrutiny of the mining plan or feasible alternatives to reduce environmental damage. He said members of the Mtunzini Conservancy had been excluded from raising their concerns at a public meeting on May 10 last year.
“The impression was gained that the applicant [the mining company] was manipulating the meeting so that questions could not properly be asked and answered, and the environmental assessment practitioner’s refusal to convene a further meeting demonstrated a failure to have complied with the obligation to provide a fair and proper opportunity for the community of Mtunzini to clarify critical aspects of the proposal… in a public forum.”
On August 23, 2011, conservancy members were also excluded from a site meeting organised by Radebe’s department, demonstrating a “flagrant disregard” for public groups’ rights.
Brauteseth also challenged the department’s view that environmental damage could be mitigated or rehabilitated.
“No responsible authority can approve a mining proposal when the only existing example of a similar operation (Exxaro’s Hillendale mine near Empangeni) stands as testimony to the fact that it is probably impossible to return the mining area to anything approximating natural conditions.”
A separate appeal document lodged by the Wildlands Trust also voiced concern that Radebe’s department had taken a “leap of faith” in accepting assurances that rehabilitation would be successful, whereas there was a real risk that the area around Mtunzini could become “a barren, unproductive wasteland for ever”.
Environmental Affairs Department director William Mngoma, who signed the authorisation for mining, said: “I would not like to comment. I’ve made a decision based on the facts in front of me and thereafter the legal process takes place through the MEC. My duty ends with signing off the record of decision.”
A Tronox/Exxaro spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. - The Mercury