Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mining vs Environment - The Battle is ON

High Stakes in the Battle Between Mining and the Environment
30 September 2007

Steven Lang

Environmentalists and tour operators appear to be losing the battle against mining companies in Mpumalanga, a province in the east of South Africa.

This confrontation - which also pits two ministries against each other - will determine the future of hundreds of lakes and rivers, and has implications for the economic sustainability of the province.

All parties in the long running dispute argue that they are working towards the economic development of the province in general, and of the Mpumalanga Lake District in particular. They differ fundamentally, however, over methods of achieving this goal and over the long term sustainability of their respective plans.

At a symposium held in the Lake District at the end of August, the premier of Mpumalanga, Thabang Makwetla, neatly described the problem: "One of the challenges facing any developing nation is maintaining a delicate balance between the pressures of economic development for job creation on the one hand, and sustainable environmental management on the other."

Mining companies and the national Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) say they will create jobs in an area where unemployment is a serious social problem. They argue that new coal mines will provide jobs not only in mining itself, but also in re-commissioned power stations and in the construction of new railway sidings.

South Africa's national power utility, Eskom, approved a budget of over 700 million dollars in 2004 to re-commission the coal-fired Camden power station near Ermelo, about 240 kilometres east of South Africa's financial hub, Johannesburg. Camden was completed in 1969 and then mothballed 20 years later while the country was experiencing a period of surplus capacity.

As the re-commissioning process began, Ermelo had already started dragging itself out of a 15-year slump. Today the town, strategically located close to the Mpumalanga Lake District and the Umlabu coal mine, is experiencing unprecedented growth.

The Mpumalanga Lake District has more than 270 fresh water lakes, including Lake Chrissie, the country's largest natural body of freshwater. It is also part of the eastern escarpment where four river catchment areas meet: the Vaal, Komati, uMpuluzi and the Usutu.

"Water found in the natural springs around Chrissie Lake is of drinking water quality. It could be bottled and sold," said Jennifer Russell, a University of Johannesburg student doing her master's degree thesis on the water quality of the area. "Mining would therefore pollute all of these pure water sources and we would never be able to get that back," she told IPS.

An informal grouping of conservationists, scientists and travel companies opposes the large scale increase in mining operations because over the long term the mines will pollute groundwater, lakes and rivers in the area. They argue that short term gains from mining will be lost when the mines run out of coal and the pristine environment has lost its tourism potential.

"Mining in this area is not sustainable. The life of a mine would probably be between five to 10 years, leaving a lifetime of environmental problems," said Russell.

Coal mining is particularly destructive to groundwater and lakes in the area. In many cases, the true extent of the environmental damage is only discovered after mining operations have ceased.

When mining takes place below the water table, the mining company is forced to pump water out of the ground in order to continue with operations. When the mine is depleted, pumping ceases and water floods into the empty caverns and pits.

Water then chemically reacts with metal sulphides exposed during the mining operation to produce sulphuric acid. The empty mine rapidly becomes a toxic bath of acid that soon decants out into the groundwater, rivers and lakes of the area.

This well-known phenomenon, described in scientific literature as Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), has been extensively studied in North America. Many incidents of AMD have already been recorded in parts of Mpumalanga, most notably where the Wilge River flows into Loskop Dam.

Louis Marneweck, a member of the provincial legislature of Mpumalanga, said in a letter of concern to the provincial government that "Loskop Dam is also experiencing problems and thousands of fish and crocodiles have died due to sewerage inflow and toxic mine water."

Noted Russell, "The most effective remediation for AMD is the use of wetlands, either natural or constructed. The wetlands act as a filter and are able to remove many of the heavy metals by causing them to precipitate out of the water."

Mining operations will, however, destroy a substantial part of the wetlands in the province. "A total of 584 hectares of these wetlands will be destroyed due to the impact of open cast mining," said Anton Linström of the Mpumalanga Parks Board.

In the Lake District, mining poses an additional threat to the environment because some of the mines will be opencast operations less than 500 metres from the shores of certain lakes. Miners will have to blast through a layer of sandstone in order to get to the coal seam. This sandstone layer performs the function of filtering surface water before it gets to the lakes.

Even the most determined environmental rehabilitation programme will not be able to repair the sandstone. Open cast mines near the lakes will permanently destroy an important surface-water filter.

The DME has assessed more than 300 mining licence applications for the province in the last year. Most of the licences will be granted to small operators and speculators, but some large commercial miners with more than enough resources to exploit the mines will also receive new licences.

The Department of Environment and Tourism is unable to oppose the granting of licences effectively because the DME has the authority to grant licences based on its own environmental impact studies.

The DME did not respond to several requests for comment on issues raised in this article.

Royal Bafokeng Holdings, the controlling shareholder of the Umlabu open cast coal mine near Ermelo, also did not respond to requests for information. However one of the paragraphs of the company's Code of Ethics says that, "Respecting and protecting the environment is an important value to which RBH subscribes."

Source: http://allafrica.com/stories/200710010620.html?page=2

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