Mining threat to coastal gem

2011-09-24 00:00

IN the middle of the lush Mtunzini forest in Zululand, dwarfed by gum trees, the sounds and smells of a delicately placed eco-system are overwhelming — unlike its lifeless neighbour, Hillendale, once stunning but now stripped barren by intense mining.

But a similar fate awaits Mtunzini as the mining giant, Exxaro, gears up to mine the area, something its residents are willing to fight till the bitter end.

The national mining company stands to make about R12 billion in profit from the area by stripping all vegetation and using high-pressure water jets to extract mineral resources.

This week conservation bodies Wessa and Coastwatch rallied behind a campaign launched by the Mtunzini Conservancy to reject the move by Exxaro.

Wessa conservation manager Bianca McKelvey said this week, “The potential fatal flaws in the proposed activities and the failings of the application make this proposed mine unacceptable and inconsistent with South Africa’s environmental regulatory framework.”

In their proposal to mine, Exxaro conducted a basic environmental assessment, claiming it was ample and that they would be able to replenish the damaged land, a claim McKelvey contests.

“By virtue of what we are seeing in Hillendale, it is highly unlikely the area will ever be restored to its former state,” she said.

Glaring evidence to support this view is obvious when driving on the N2 towards Richards Bay.

The stark wasteland of man-made red sand hills and the vast sterile Hillendale slimes dam (another Exxaro project) are regular reminders of what may lie ahead — an open-cast mine, with slimes five kilometres long and 30 metres high towering above electricity pylons.

Exxaro KZN Sands makes use of hydraulic mining methods to extract minerals from the soil, requiring the removal of 2 800 hectares of vegetation consisting of gum plantations, sugar cane and indigenous trees.

The town of Mtunzini is one of few urban areas incorporated within a well-established conservancy area.

It has a long history of environmental conservation and is dependent upon eco-tourism for its commercial existence. The village comprises about 700 homes, the majority being permanent residential properties. There are numerous businesses in the town, many of which are bed-and-breakfast facilities providing hospitality to tourists attracted by the pristine subtropical forest environment, beach and estuary.

According to Barbara Chedzey, chairperson of the Mtunzini Conservancy, 100 houses are up for sale largely due to the pending mining.

“We have an eco-system that is delicate and a ripple effect on the Indian Ocean coastal belt will certainly be experienced,” Chedzey said.

An estimated 49 million litres of water is expected to be used in the mineral extraction process, which is more than the town uses in a month, Chedzey said.

“People living in adjacent rural areas have struggled for years to get running water and more so in the recent droughts — the mine will be in direct competition with people.”

The town’s conservancy operates closely with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which is responsible for the adjacent Umlalazi Nature Reserve, formerly part of the Mtunzini municipal area.

The Umlalazi Nature Reserve and Mtunzini have been classified by Birdlife International as an IBA, an “important bird area”.

“Among the critically endangered species that live in the area are the Picker’s Gill Frogs and Palm Nut Vultures, the rarest bird of prey in Africa,” said Chedzey.

Julie Stacey, an independent consultant on sustainable development who has worked in and with mining companies for 20 years, said documentation relating to Exxaro’s application does not contribute to good decision making.

“Exxaro has non-specific and vague commitments in the environmental management programme. They are promising to rehabilitate without scientific evidence that rehabilitation is indeed possible. In addition, the documents in fact confirm that adequate mitigation of certain impacts is not possible,” she said.

Respected environmentalist Roger Porter, who has more than 40 years experience with Ezemvelo and the Natal Parks Board, has condemned mining proposal, saying it is fundamentally flawed and that mining the area will have a devastating effect on KZN’s and South Africa’s biodiversity status.

THE Fairbreeze mine will replace the Hillendale mine, which will end its full production operations in 2012, Exxaro spokesperson Hilton Atkinson said.

Subject to approval, construction of Fairbreeze mine is expected to start before the end of the year. A comprehensive impact assessment has been conducted using updated specialist studies, he said, and Exxaro is satisfied that all aspects highlighted by interested and affected parties have been dealt with in detail.

If the Fairbreeze project does not go ahead the entire Exxaro KZN Sands business will shut down. This includes Hillendale mine and Empangeni facilities. A loss of more than 1 000 jobs will follow and an annual wage bill of over R300 million will be removed from Zululand. Ongoing rehabilitation at Hillendale is progressing well. Once mining at Hillendale ends, the water supply from the Umhlatuze Water Board to Hillendale will be transferred to the Fairbreeze mine via a pipeline.

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