Durban - A plan to cut up the central sandbank in Durban harbour to make it deeper for heavily laden ships has been thrown out by the Department of Environmental Affairs because it could lead to an environmental catastrophe.
What has been rejected is a part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that was commissioned by Transnet to allow for the deepening, widening and lengthening of three berths at Maydon Wharf.
Two consulting firms, one from Gauteng and the other from Cape Town, were appointed to draw up the EIA.
Transnet is under massive pressure to increase the economic viability of the port since the R2.3-billion widening and deepening of the harbour mouth in 2010 to allow bigger vessels to berth.
Without the proposed work, these ships cannot dock unless they sail in on the high tide or are not fully laden.
In a letter dated October 21, the Environmental Department rejected the EIA report by Nemai Consulting in Joburg, saying Transnet had not “applied its mind” to the consequences of removing a section of the ecologically important sandbank.
The department also questioned a feasibility study done by ZAA Engineering Projects and Naval Architecture in Cape Town, saying it did not address how the climate change risks of a rise in sea level and storm surges would be mitigated once the sandbank was disturbed.
It also warned Transnet not to start any building at the berths until the final EIA had been approved.
Environmental groups who opposed the EIA have accused Transnet of withholding the department’s rejection letter.
While Patrick Bond, head of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society, hailed the decision as a victory, Bobby Peek from the environmental justice NGO, groundWork, said the rejection of the report highlighted the weakness of environmental legislation.
“The department has not rejected the whole EIA. Our legislation allows Transnet to carry on submitting reports until they get approval. This thing should be stopped. It shouldn’t be allowed at all.”
Peek said the pending approval of the Infrastructure Development Bill in February would give the government the power to override EIA rulings by the department on projects which were deemed of national importance.
“That means no matter what we say, the new port and these changes will go ahead,” he said.
He added that the rejection by the department of the EIA would also give impetus to the government’s push for the R100-billion dig-out port south of the existing harbour.
“They will just use this to say that is why they need the new port,” he said.
Diana Dold, head of Coastwatch, said Transnet’s plan contravened a deal struck in 1999 where the port authority agreed, in perpetuity, not to cut through the sandbank.
Arnia van Vuuren, from Birdlife Port Natal, said the report had been submitted without considering the environmental impact of three other major projects: the dig-out port, the new floating dry dock and the proposed expansion of a tug jetty at “R” berth.
“Transnet is proposing piecemeal changes to Durban Bay. A single project may not contravene the 1999 Record of Decision, but all taken together, it looks like a variation of the developments they wanted to do in the 1990s but had agreed not to do.”
The bay was one of only three estuarine bays in South Africa and was critical to the nurturing of deep-sea fish species.
“Despite all the changes since the 1800s forcing it into being a port, the Durban Bay still functions as an estuarine bay. It also offers “free goods and services” to the city which include flood control, biodiversity, climate control and protection and acting as a carbon sink.”
Transnet’s Silindile Mkhabela, who is Durban’s acting port manager, was unfazed.
“Our amended report will be submitted for public review towards the end of January… after which it will be submitted to the DEA for approval,” she said.
Environmental affairs department spokeswoman Roopa Singh said that until they had received the amended plan from Transnet, they were not in a position to make an informed decision regarding the proposed project. - The Mercury