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Eco-warriors at the coal face in Mpumalanga

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Mpumalanga - It's “disingenuous” of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to suggest its controversial approval of an Indian coal mine in one of South Africa’s most critical water source areas does not set a dangerous precedent.

“The grasslands of Mpumalanga, where this proposed mine would be situated, are both rich in coal deposits and of enormous importance for water security, a fact recognised in a multitude of government-sponsored research reports,” says Melissa Fourie, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights.

“When the next mining company applies for mining in one of the many protected areas in the Mpumalanga grasslands (declared protected exactly to protect this sensitivity and importance), on what basis will the minister (of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa) reject that application?”

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A view of the picturesque escarpment near Wakkerstroom. The grasslands of Mpumalanga are both rich in coal deposits and of enormous importance for water security.

Fourie was responding to a statement issued this week by the DEA “rejecting speculation” that the granting of permission to Atha-Africa Ventures (linked to President Jacob Zuma) to mine within the Mabola protected area near Wakkerstroom “could set a dangerous precedent”.

The DEA’s statement was issued in response to concerns raised by MPs earlier this month, where the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on environmental affairs, Philemon Mapulane, told DEA officials: "But if you allowed mining at Mabola, it means it can be allowed elsewhere. Mining companies are always looking for mining deposits. A company may find deposits in the Kruger National Park. What will we do? We’re setting a dangerous precedent.”

Fourie agrees. “There is a reason why the department has had to answer robust challenges and criticism from the portfolio committee. The approval of this coal mine in a protected environment and a water source area is simply indefensible.”

The DEA says the committee's view is “regrettable”.

“The department (does) not use a one-size fits all approach with regards to environmental authorisations, and every case is considered on its own merits.”

But Angus Burns, the senior manager of WWF-SA’s land and biodiversity stewardship programme, disagrees.

“My concern is that with this kind of authorisation having been granted to a mining house that has no record of mining in South Africa, in one of the most sensitive locations you can possibly find, will open a floodgate of applications in protected areas.”

Fourie says it’s unfortunate that Molewa and her department continue to repeat the “inaccurate statement” that Atha’s mining right application was essentially an application for renewal of mining rights, as the prospecting rights for the area were previously held by BHP Billiton until 2011.

“In law, a prospecting right does not give the holder of that right an entitlement to a mining right, and the granting of a mining right is most certainly not a renewal of a prospecting right. This area was declared a protected environment before the mining right was awarded to Atha.

“Atha was one of a number of mining companies that objected to the proposed declaration none of these mining companies took any legal action to challenge the declaration.”

The department, says the CER, sets out the various licences required for mining but neglects to recognise Molewa was authorising mining in a protected area, “not just anywhere.

“The same applies for the ‘mitigation measures’ listed by the department.

“The department ignores the fact that every single approval given to this mine by regulatory authorities - on which the minister says she relied when giving her approval - is under appeal, or subject to judicial review proceedings.

“The various legal challenges under way will soon reach our courts, and then the court will decide whether the minister's actions comply with her constitutional obligations to protect environmental rights.”

Saturday Star

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