Sand mining free-for-all

2017-02-02 10:48
An aerial photo of a sand-mining operation on the Msunduzi river.

An aerial photo of a sand-mining operation on the Msunduzi river. (Ian Carbutt)

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Pietermaritzburg - Illegal sand mining along the banks of the Msunduzi and Umngeni rivers between Pietermaritzburg and Durban is posing an increasingly serious environmental threat.

The Witness began investigating the illegal operations after being made aware by an avid hiker of an illegal sand mining operation at Table Mountain. Subsequent inquiries revealed that similar illegal sand mining is taking place regularly along the banks of the two rivers between Table Mountain and Inanda.

Sanele Vilakazi, pollution control officer for Duct (Duzi Umngeni Conservation Trust), said illegal sand mining in KZN has become a “free-for-all”.

Unregulated and unchecked illegal sand mining is considered “as one of the more serious environmental problems” facing the province.

Vilakazi said that after illegally excavating the sand the illegal operators just leave, abandoning the ravaged land without rehabilitating it. One particular site, which is thought to have been in operation since the beginning of December last year, is on the banks of the Duzi in the Table Mountain area.

The operation has destroyed the vegetation in the area, leaving it in a “huge mess”, according to Vilakazi.

Vilakazi said the impacts of vegetation-clearing and formation of access routes to sand mining sites for large vehicles “has probably the most profound effect on erosion and land degradation”.

“With sand mining, most of the topsoil is removed and vegetation becomes absent. Water penetration is low and run-off is high. Sand mining subsequently leads to a hastened soil erosion process.”

He said this was worsened by heavy rains.

GroundWork researcher David Hallowes said that one has to have a mining permit or right and a water use licence to mine sand legally.

“A lot of sand mining goes on without either,” said Hallowes.

He said the sand mining on the banks of the Duzi at Table Mountain should therefore “be stopped immediately”.

The Department of Mineral Resources confirmed that the Table Mountain operation was illegal and said the effects on the surrounding environment may include ecological impacts and water-quality impacts.

Vilakazi said poor mining practices and the mechanical exposure of the sand were the main causes of soil erosion in illegal sand mining operations.

“The impact of sand mining activities during the excavation cycle of the site is relatively high as patrols and compliance monitoring on the site are rarely carried out,” he said.

“The production and rehabilitation of fertile top sand/soil that will support good plant growth and prevent soil erosion is an extremely slow process.

“Natural rehabilitation of mined land takes between 12 to 40 years.”

Vilakazi said the loss of sand due to mining is estimated at 0,7 tons per hectare per year.

He said because the sand mining was not regulated, it had become a “free-for-all” for illegal miners and anyone with construction equipment and machinery could “mosey on down, do as they please and then pack up and leave”.

He said there were a number of illegal sand mining operations that Duct had traced along the Msunduzi and Umngeni rivers, reaching Inanda in Durban.

Without operations being regulated, people in the sand supply business said it is difficult to determine what is legal and what is not.

The manager of a Pietermaritzburg sand supply company, who asked that his name be withheld, said it was not easy to determine where sand sold to them was coming from.

“We do not always know where the sand comes from, and do not always have time to check if it is legal,” said the manager.

“We usually stay clear of suppliers who sell the sand at low prices because these are usually the illegal sand miners,” he added.

An owner of a sand supply and transport company in Pietermaritzburg who also wished not to be named for fear of victimisation said it was “very difficult” to verify whether sand being supplied to companies was illegal or not.

Department spokesperson Solomon Phetla said the department would respond today on how it would be dealing with the illegal sand mining.

WHAT IS SAND MINING?

According to a 2014 document titled, “Illegal sand mining in South Africa” by Romy Chevallier, there has recently been a drastic increase in “uncontrolled and unauthorised sand mining activities in rivers, valleys and estuaries throughout the country”.

The extraction of sand from beaches or the dredging of sand from riverbeds is performed mainly through open pit methods.

The document said this method required only basic equipment. A bulldozer clears vegetation and builds access roads; an excavator or front-end loader is used to remove sand deposits; and trucks for transportation.

“The extracted sand is then transported a short distance and sold privately to local sand companies and individuals.

“Most of the illegal operators in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape extract sand directly from main river channels and adjacent sandbanks.

“Although these operations appear small and localised, they remove important stabilising vegetation and constantly move location, leaving behind unproductive and unrestored land.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  environment  |  mining

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