THE FUTURE of the marine ecology of the entire northern KwaZulu-Natal coast could be placed in jeopardy by plans to scour the sea for heavy minerals and gemstones, say critics of the proposed venture.
The latest Zululand application for mine prospecting, for the mouth of the Tugela River, has triggered alarm bells about the safety of a rich fish and prawn nursery ground.
The application has raised fears that the discovery of mineral deposits could lead to huge undersea trenches and opencast mining operations, disrupting a unique, complex sea food chain linked to the marine ecology of the entire northern KZN coast.
The application to prospect in a block almost 50km long and 22km wide has been lodged by Fast Pace Trade and Invest 58 (Pty) Ltd.
According to geologist Ian Basson from the Western Cape, he and University of KwaZulu-Natal geology lecturer Ron Uken, Durban geologist Damian Smith and black empowerment mining services group Siyakhula Sonke Corporation are shareholders, with 25 percent each.
Siyakhula’s chief executive is former Anglo Platinum transformation head Fred Arendse and the business development director is Champ Tekiso, a former assistant manager at PwC. Siyakhula also has interests in Redpath Mining and Sekgwa Mining Services.
Apart from gems such as garnet, the company is looking for heavy minerals such as rutile, ilmenite, zircon and iron ore, which are also mined nearby by Richards Bay Minerals and Exxaro.
If mining went ahead, it would be the first underwater mining venture for heavy minerals off the South African coast, although similar mining is done off the Australian and South American coasts.
The company does not have any record or experience in offshore mining, although some of its members have done extensive geological research and prospecting work for companies such as Richards Bay Minerals. They have also been involved in exploration or research at the Rossing uranium mine in Namibia, and gold and diamond mining in Tanzania and Botswana.
The application is restricted to prospecting rather than mining, but if large quantities of heavy minerals or gemstones were found, this could trigger a major controversy about the short-term benefits of mining as opposed to the long-term health and productivity of a nationally important marine environment.
Rudy van der Elst, director of the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, said the prospect of undersea mining on the Tugela Banks was of “major concern”.
“It’s not just the valuable prawn and fish nursery. If mining went ahead, it could affect the marine ecology of the entire North Coast.”
Environmental consultants acting for Fast Pace advertised the application two weeks ago and want written feedback before Thursday.
Van der Elst said the institute had asked for the company’s environmental management plan, but had not seen it yet.
“We have indicated that the notice period is too short. You can’t have such a tight schedule, particularly when we have not been provided with adequate information to comment properly.”
Van der Elst said he was unaware of similar ventures off South Africa.
Depending on the methods, mining could stir up clouds of sand and sediments that could have serious effects on the marine environment.
Bianca McKelvey, conservation manager of the Wildlife and Environment Society, noted that the Tugela was among the country’s biggest rivers and deposited vast quantities of sand, sediment and food nutrients into the sea.
The muddy environment was an ideal nursery for prawns and other creatures.
“Research shows that it is also a nursery for a larger group of species which go all the way up to Mozambique and beyond.
“In a worst-case scenario you could end up with trenches and an opencast mine underwater… the removal of large volumes of sand could… wipe out prawn fishing.”
Basson, also principal director of Tect Geological Consulting in Somerset West, said these fears were “premature and alarmist”.
He said only 3 percent of prospected areas were eventually mined globally.
Prospecting would involve desktop studies and the collection of sediment samples and low-energy seismic tests. Mining would be “largely benign”.
“It is pretty much what RBM and Exxaro are doing on shore. It is not as if there are coral reefs. It is basically an underwater dune field.
Asked if Fast Pace was acting or planning to act for a large mining company, Basson said: “We have not really thought that far ahead.”
A Companies and Intellectual Properties Commission data search suggests that Basson and Smith are the only two directors of the company.