West Coast communities in urgent bid to block seismic survey

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The seismic survey is to be conducted off the West and South-West Coast of South Africa.
The seismic survey is to be conducted off the West and South-West Coast of South Africa.
Mike Copeland
  • Residents and fishing communities along the West Coast and other concerned citizens have filed an urgent court application to block a seismic survey.
  • The applicants are challenging the lawfulness of a reconnaissance permit granted to the Australian company Searcher in May 2021.
  • Respondents, including Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe have until Monday, 24 January to indicate if they will oppose.

West coast communities and other concerned citizens have lodged an urgent application to interdict a seismic survey off the West Coast.

The seismic survey is to be performed by an Australian geoscience data supplier Searcher Seismic.  The application was filed at the Western Cape High court on Friday.

There are 14 applicants in the matter - including individuals who live along the West coast as well as  small-scale fisheries - such as  Steenbergs Cove Small Scale Fisheries Cooperative, the Aukatowa Small Scale Fisheries Cooperative  and Coastal links Langebaan -  and civil society organisations We Are South Africans and The Green Connection. They are represented by the Legal Resources Centre and Richard Spoor Attorneys.

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy, the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) are among the respondents listed in the matter.

Searcher Seismic and its UK division Searcher Geodata and the vessel performing the survey BGP Pioneer, have also been listed as respondents.

There are two parts to the application - the first seeks an urgent interdict of the seismic survey off the west and south-west coasts of the country, pending the outcomes of the second part of the application: an appeal of PASA's decision to grant the reconnaissance permit in May 2021. The applicants want the court to review and set aside the decision to grant the permit, which they believe was unlawful.

There is no clarity as to whether the survey has started or not. Fin24 has sent Searcher multiple requests for comment, without a response.

The app MarineTraffic on Friday 21 January, showed that the BGP Pioneer is near St Helena Bay.

According to PASA the survey is planned for January to May.

If the court rules in favour of the applicants, then Searcher's seismic survey would be interdicted until a lawful reconnaissance permit is granted.

This means that Searcher must comply with the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) by consulting meaningfully with affected parties and obtaining environmental authorisation.

PASA previously told Fin24 that at the time the application for the reconnaissance permit was lodged, in April 2021, there was no legal requirement for environmental authorisation, in terms of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations which were gazette in June 2021. These amendments do not apply retrospectively, according to PASA.

Furthermore, PASA said that it was satisfied with the "extensive" stakeholder engagement process that was held during the formulation of Searcher's Environmental Management Plan (EMPr). It further indicated that it was satisfied with the EMPr, which indicates how Searcher intends to manage potential environmental impacts from the survey.

The founding affidavit, lodged by Christian John Adams, a resident of Steenberg's Cove in the West Coast town St Helena Bay, raises concerns of the impact of the survey on marine and bird life.

Seismic surveys involve airguns to send pulses of sound into water as a means to map out the sea bed.

Adams further stated that the survey would have a "profound impact" on the rights of small-scale fishing communities such as their right to work and earn a living, to food and their cultural and traditional rights will be affected. "Searcher has not made any meaningful attempts to engage small-scale fishers to ascertain how they will be affected by the seismic survey and whether and how these effects can be mitigated or otherwise managed," the affidavit read.

Adams highlighted that both the MPRDA and NEMA require interested and affected parties be consulted "meaningfully". "Without such consultation, Searcher cannot appreciate and accommodate the extensive harm that its activities are likely to cause," the affidavit read.

The respondents have until Monday 24 January at 16:00 to give their notice to oppose. The matter is expected to be heard on 7 February 2022, but it is still to be confirmed.

In a separate matter, Wild Coast communities had been successful in having the Makhanda High Court grant an interim interdict of Shell's planned seismic survey. The survey is interdicted pending the outcomes of a legal challenge of Shell's environmental authorisation. The vessel that would conduct the survey, Amazon Warrior, has already left South African shores.

Judge Gerald Bloem who made the ruling said that evidence presented by Wild Coast communities showed, "there is real threat that the marine life would be irreparably harmed by the seismic survey."

Bloem also criticised Shell's "inadequate" consultation process with affected communities, and labelled it as "substantially flawed."

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), part of the Academy of Science of South Africa, recently issued an advisory warning that seismic surveys create noise pollution and pose a threat to marine life. They want government to rethink the legislation that governs the marine environment.

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