Andreas Späth

Will government stand up to Anglo?

2013-10-28 12:24

Andreas Wilson-Späth and Dominique Doyle

On the 11th of October, 1700 environmental activists and concerned citizens held a colourful and peaceful march to the Anglo American headquarters in Johannesburg. Their gripe: Anglo American Thermal Coal and Vedanta Zinc International's plans for building a 600 Megawatt coal-fired power station and coal mine in the water-stressed Waterberg region. In doing so, the protesters content, these companies join the ranks of those who are willing to sacrifice community health for the profitable combustion of low grade quality coal.

Anglo's plans will test government's commitment to our constitutional right to a clean, healthy and safe environment. Right now, the Department of Environmental Affairs is required to make a decision on whether the new coal complex should be approved or not.

Secretive paranoia

The real question is: Will the Department allow Anglo to make billions of rands from the destruction of the Waterberg because the mining giant’s profit margin is worth more than the country's health and welfare?

The plans for the project have been marked by secretive paranoia and a refusal to engage with the public. The companies have refused to provide civil society with copies of the applications for the waste management, atmospheric emissions and water use licenses for the proposed mine and power plant. By refusing to share this information, they are negating the constitutional right of communities to participate in the decisions concerning their future environment, a right which is legally supported by the National Environmental Management Act of 2009 and the Environmental Impact Regulations Act of 2010.

One of the central concerns for affected communities is the fact that the proposed power plant is to be constructed in the already water-scarce area of Lephalale. The project is estimated to require 68.5 cubic metres of water per hour, yet there is no clarity about where this water will come from.

It may be drawn from the Mokolo Dam and Crocodile River Augmentation Project, but this precious supply has already been promised to Eskom’s Medupi power station. If it’s to be sourced from local supplies, it’s unclear how water will be allocated between the coal complex and existing water users such as communities, game farms and agriculture.

Water pollution

Mining is already responsible for 75% of the water pollution in South Africa and the consequences to the precious water resources in the region will be devastating.

An average of 6800 tonnes of ash will be produced by the power plant every day, but it remains uncertain how much land will be required to deal with this waste.

Because the Lephalale area is water restricted the ash will have to be disposed of in a dry state in an above ground pit which has yet to be approved and for which details are absent.

Toxins likely to be contained in the ash, including arsenic, mercury, chromium and cadmium, have carcinogenic effects on human health and are detrimental to local water supplies.

While Anglo and Vedanta call the adverse impacts of the proposed mine and power plant ‘site specific’ and ‘reversible’, they fail to show how the severely degraded dump site will be rehabilitated once mining operations have ceased.

Despite the fact that South Africa has adopted the “Polluter Pays Principle” in its National Climate Change Response, it’s evident that Anglo and Vedanta intend to employ the cheapest technologies and rehabilitation methods available – a strategy against which government policy is seemingly powerless. Local communities will have to endure toxic land and water well into the future.

Stubborn system

Instead of ensuring and protecting the long-term health and welfare of local communities by providing clean, renewable energy options that contribute towards South Africa’s espoused sustainable development goals, government departments seem intent on helping to maintain the status quo of multinational corporations like Anglo-American Thermal Coal.

The Department of Environmental Affairs, the Department of Public Enterprises and the Department of Energy have not provided the leadership required to transform our dirty energy system into a cleaner and ultimately cheaper and locally-built renewable energy network. The Department of Water Affairs is mandated to ensure the health of the country's water resources, yet it approves water infrastructure that will increase future water insecurity.

Government’s approval of private coal-fired power stations like Anglo’s would suggest that it remains beholden to a stubborn system in which our constitutional rights are either overlooked or meaningless.

- Dominique Doyle is the Energy Policy Officer for Earthlife Africa Jhb.
- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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