Msobo Coal is proceeding with plans to build a new coal mine in the environmentally fragile Chrissiesmeer area amid uncertainty whether mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu has banned mining there.
If mining is banned, Msobo will have wasted millions on studies. But if its project is not halted, Msobo is likely to experience the same resistance from the environmental and tourism sectors that Coal of Africa faced over its Vele colliery near Mapungubwe.
Chrissiesmeer, dubbed “Mpumalanga’s Lake District”, is a site of significant beauty and biodiversity, with about 270 water pans and the largest natural inland freshwater lake in SA.
Msobo Coal, a BEE entity which says only that it is “privately owned”, bought the Tselentis colliery from Xstrata Coal last year. The planned Harwar colliery, an opencast mine, will extend the life of Tselentis, preserving 600 jobs. It will produce 1Mt of coal per year for 15-20 years.
In March 2011, Shabangu said she intended to ban the grant of mining and prospecting rights in the Chrissiesmeer Biodiversity Site for three years. In parliament in November last year, she said mining had been banned there.
But Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) executive director Melissa Fourie says this ban has not appeared in the Government Gazette. Unless gazetted, it is not in force. The centre has asked the minister twice to clarify the position and ban mining there for 20 years. It has had no response.
“If the minister continues to ignore the pleas of the local NGOs, the only option remaining is to challenge any decision to grant mining rights in court.”
The department of mineral resources was unable to comment.
James Duncan, spokesman for Msobo Coal, says the company understands that the prohibition affects only prospecting and mining rights applications made after March 4 2011. The prospecting right for Harwar was granted before the moratorium, so Msobo could apply for a mining right.
Koos Pretorius of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment says the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency, with the support of numerous local landowners, has also applied for the 62000ha site to be declared a protected area under the National Environmental Management Act (Nema).
Last year the town of Carolina, 26km from Chrissiesmeer, suffered a prolonged water crisis when the municipal water treatment plant collapsed.
The department of water affairs said it would investigate potential contamination from both Tselentis and BHP Billiton’s closed Union mine.
“Tselentis has not been identified as the responsible party,” Duncan says. “Msobo Coal is a responsible miner, and ensures it complies with all environmental and other legislation.”
Pretorius says potable water is available while water is being pumped into the Nooitgedacht Dam from the Lesotho Highlands Scheme to service Eskom’s needs in the dry season.
“As soon as that pumping stops, the problem is likely to recur because there is no sign that the water quality at those two coal mines has improved.”
Local residents have resorted to court to access the correspondence between the department of water affairs and the mines, says Pretorius. “There is no transparency at all.”
By Charlotte Mathews. Source: Financial Mail
Melissa Fourie, a lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights. Image: Hetty Zantsman