Marloth PAark is a major tourist destination, with wildlife roaming freely. Residents say trucks laden with coal will spell disaster for the area. Picture: Esther Caripis

Johannesburg - A legal fight is brewing over a large proposed coal-mining project on the southern doorstep of the Kruger National Park.

Conservationists are worried that if the project is given the green light, it could have a “catastrophic” impact on the already stressed Crocodile River system and negatively affect tourism and agriculture.

Manzolwandle Investments, based in eMalahleni (Witbank), Mpumalanga, has applied for a mining right for coal, pseudocoal and torbanite in an area spanning 17975 hectares, near Komatipoort.

For a mining right area as large as this, “the consequences of coal mining could be devastating to the future sustainable living of people and biodiversity in this area”, says Francois Krige, a land-use scientist at the Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Agency (MTPA).

“The area will include Marloth Park, Ngwenya Lodge and all the farms (which include sugar cane, bananas, mangos, oranges, etc) all the way to Komatipoort. Marloth, Ngwenya and these farms form the buffer zone of the KNP,” explains Cindy Benson, of the Marloth Park Ratepayers Association.

Marloth Park is a huge tourist destination. “This is due to the fact that we have wildlife roaming freely between the residential houses, B&Bs, lodges, etc, with pedestrians, cyclists and joggers constantly on our roads.

“Having heavy trucks laden with coal will spell disaster to humans and the wildlife crossing our roads as to injury and fatalities,” she says.

Legal action against the proposed project is now on the cards by Marloth Park residents.

John Davies, the project co-ordinator for raptor conservation and research at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, says of major concern is the fact that much of the development falls within the KNP buffer zone, while two critical biodiversity areas are also found within the development. Additionally, one of the properties, Lionspruit, is classed as a nature reserve.

The most significant concern is the impact on water within the area.

“The Crocodile River is under extreme pressure from water abstraction through various forms including industry, domestic use and agriculture. The addition of a coal mine on this already stressed system would have catastrophic consequences, not only to the natural environment, but also to all residents in the region and associated economic activities,” he says.

“This water source is also critical to Mozambique and lessening the flow of the Crocodile River will place pressure on bilateral agreements between South Africa and Mozambique in terms of the usage and sharing of water resources.”

Benson agrees. “The most import threat is the impact the coal mine will have on our water. Already we do not have sufficient water. Marloth Park was without any drinking water for four days in the beginning of July.

“The mine aims to produce approximately 20million tons of high-grade coal per year, which means that the mine will use approximately 11.62billion litres of water per year,” she states.

“The Kwena dam is at 40% and the Crocodile River catchment and its tributaries are disastrously low.”

Davies says the potential for water contamination is prevalent, as with most types of mining. “Groundwater contamination is also a grave concern as many people rely on boreholes for their water supply.”

Krige says the MTPA is committed, with Kruger Park and other stakeholders, to ensure due process is followed during the environmental assessment and/or authorisation process.

“For applications received between 2012 and 2015, the MTPA’s land-use advisory scientists objected to prospecting applications for coal and iron ore in this area, as it lies within a restricted ecological support area, and the 10km buffer of the Kruger National Park. No quarrying or opencast mining may be allowed in these areas as such land-use activities will compromise the biodiversity objectives of the area. Therefore the Department of Mineral Resources has declined the iron ore prospecting application, but until now no feedback was received for the other prospecting applications that were objected to.”

In its July 8 environmental impact assessment and environmental management programme, the firm’s consultants, Singo Consulting, state how the project will “create long-term national benefits of a reliable power supply and resultant socio-economic benefits; ensure the supply of a secure long term supply of coal to Eskom; and create needed job creation”.

During the operational phase, the mine will employ about 150 people, but Davies says in all likelihood this is “far fewer than the number of jobs that will be lost”.

“The impact on local businesses, in particular farms and tourism enterprises, is very hard to quantify, but will undoubtedly be significant. Tourism in particular, representing a sustainable form of income for many people, will be affected and the associated job losses attributed directly to this planned development will surely outweigh those created.

“It’s extremely short-sighted to invest in such a high-impact form of development with a projected lifespan of only 30 years, when sustainable forms of job creation exist and could rather be focused on,” he says.

Singo’s document says not allowing the mine to proceed “would leave a valuable resource in the ground and would result in no economic benefit, no job creation and no supply of coal to Eskom and exports.

“The no-go option will, however, impact positively on the existing way of life, especially for farmers and people living on plots.”

But Benson says mining impacts on biodiversity and associated ecosystems “can last for centuries and cause permanent and irreversible impacts on the environment. These impacts pose serious risks to other economic activities, livelihoods and the ecological infrastructure”.

Francois Rossouw, of agricultural interest group Saai, says the quantity of water needed for the planned mine “will significantly lower the water tables of adjacent farms and affect irrigation farmers as far as 300km along the river.

“I don’t think it will be responsible if a mining application granted in South Africa affects rivers and water quality in Mozambique. We will be contacting the Mozambican authorities to discuss the effects this mine will have on them.

“This is a very high-intensity agricultural area. If you look at the proposed mining area, it will yield a once-off investment and thereafter that whole area will be dead. I don’t understand why you would want to put a coal mine in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. We have sought legal opinion and will go ahead with legal action if required.”

This week, AfriForum sent a legal letter to the firm and its environmental consultants, over alleged flaws in the consultation process. The planned mine, it says, “will devastate the surrounding area, the Crocodile River, nature reserves, the national park, wildlife, natural beauty and agricultural activities AfriForum will launch a process to stop the planned mine”.

But Raymond Zulu, a director of Manzolwandle Investments, dismisses threats of legal action.

“They are drunk. It’s an unwinnable case. We are following all the correct procedures. They’re going to waste their money for nothing.

“The only people objecting are the white people. Some are not even staying in Marloth Park. They are in Australia, England, Joburg and America. Where we are going to start mining is about 12km away from Marloth Park.

“The people who are supporting us are the black people. They are hungry and we have to develop their lives and their places in the right manner. The Kruger is far from the place we are going to mine. I cannot talk about someone who cares about animals and doesn’t care about human beings.”

But Benson disputes this. “They want to mine right under Marloth Park, right under Ngwenya, not 12km away They are promising jobs but only 50 people from Nkomazi local municipality will be hired, the other jobs will be for professional people.

“What he (Zulu) doesn’t say is how the impacts of this mine is going to destroy thousands of jobs in the hospitality, tourism and agricultural sector, which will go to ruin. This the biggest financial and economic source in the Mpumalanga area. Who wants to visit Marloth Park, Ngwenya or the Kruger if there’s a mine there?

“The Crocodile River doesn’t just feed the animals, it feeds all the people and communities in that area. There’s no water for farmers to plant produce, there is no drinkable water for anybody in the community because the rivers are so low, yet they want to destroy the river even further.”

‘Flawed’ application process

The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) is “concerned” about the mining right application process conducted by Manzolwandle Investments’ appointed environmental assessment consultant, Singo Consulting.

“MTPA is concerned about the mining right application process conducted... in that a) misleading information has been received in their electronic background information document about the prospecting results and b) the availability of the scoping EIA documents.”

Although it registered as an interested and affected party in October last year, it never received confirmation of this. “The MTPA was thus excluded so far from the process and feel that the process is flawed. For a mining right area as large as 17000 hectares the consequences of coal mining could be devastating to the future sustainable living of people and biodiversity in this area. The planning should not be done recklessly.

“At request of the consultant, MTPA provided biodiversity information maps from the Mpumalanga Biodiversity Sector Plan, and species lists of what may occur on the area.”

In an attempt to set a forum of open dialogue with Singo Consulting and the Department of Mineral Resources, relevant role-players were invited to an authority information exchange session in Mbombela on July 9.

“This consultation process failed because the consultant could not answer the questions put to him. ”

Kenneth Singo, of Singo Consulting, said: “We are addressing all issues raised and we have engaged with MTPA and explained to them that we were not part of 2018 consultation. We had a meeting with them. We are planning further meetings in August and September.”

John Davies, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said the survey of fauna contained in the environmental impact assessment and environmental management programme that were found on the proposed site, was “exceptionally limited and poorly executed.

“The species found totalled 33, which of course is far below what should be found on even a very superficial site visit to the planned development area.

Singo Consulting acknowledged in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that the figure of 33 is “less than the number of animals expected to be found on site from the literature study”.

Singo said in the EIA that wetlands “will not form part of the EIA process for authorisation. Underground mining will stay 100m away from wetlands”.

But Davies said wetlands are critical to the normal functioning of any significant natural water resource.

“To mention so blatantly that wetlands will not be considered in the EIA is reckless and irresponsible as water abstraction from this development will directly affect any wetland within the planned development.” 

Saturday Star