This Article appeared in the Mercury on Tuesday, 27 May.
By Tony Carnie
“Some places are sacrosanct – so please pull back and think again!” This is the plea to a mining company from KwaZulu-Natal’s official guardian of the province’s wild spaces.
Responding to plans to set up an open-cast coal mining operation on the fence line of Africa’s oldest game reserve, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has urged local mining company Ibutho Coal to go back to the drawing board and come up with a revised mining plan further away from the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park boundary.
In a written submission to consultants examining the environmental impact of the proposed Fuleni anthracite coal mine, Ezemvelo warned that blasting and mining coal less than 100m from one of the country’s last wilderness areas showed “complete disregard for a flagship protected area”.
The conservation agency noted that a different coal mining company, Somkhele, discovered another viable coal seam close to the park boundary a few years ago – but pulled back.
The owners of the Somkhele mine had acknowledged the value of wilderness and chose not to pursue an application to mine this seam, and moved their operations further away to reduce the negative impact on the park.
“Given this precedent case, it is strongly advised that Ibutho Coal voluntarily retreats from the boundary of the park and that the environmental impact assessment process focuses on determining, through technical studies, what would constitute an appropriate buffer to ensure that the wilderness of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is protected from the direct and indirect impacts of the proposed mining operation, such as noise, visual, dust, vibrations and fire.”
The directors of Ibutho Coal, however, have chosen to remain silent for now in the face of criticism, and declined an invitation to respond to several questions posed by The Mercury.
Environmental groups from across the world have slammed the Ibutho proposal and started a global campaign to halt the Fuleni coal mining venture, which they fear would destroy the precarious sense of place and characteristics of the Imfolozi wilderness zone.
The wilderness zone dates back to 1959, when 12 000 hectares of the reserve was given this special protection status. Since then the wilderness area has been expanded to cover nearly 32 000ha.
“Blasting, sirens, loading of vehicles and road traffic (150 vehicle trips a day plus 150 to 200 product delivery trips a day) from the proposed Fuleni anthracite project will have a severe adverse impact on wilderness,” Ezemvelo said.
“The intrusion of noise into wilderness threatens the very existence of wilderness and could likely culminate in |Imfolozi losing its wilderness status.
“It is brought to your attention that noise from two current mines in close proximity to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, but not directly adjacent to the wilderness (Zululand Anthracite Colliery and Somkhele) can be heard within the park’s boundaries, particularly at night.
One would expect that the proposed Fuleni mine located closer to the wilderness area would have a significantly worse noise impact and exacerbate an already unacceptable impact.”
The possibility of a major mine on the park boundary had also raised concern about increased poaching and security requirements for a park that contains one of the densest populations of rhino in the world.
Ezemvelo said it was mindful about the “vital role” of the mining industry in growth and development, but noted that the national ministers of the environment and mineral resources and the Chamber of Mines had compiled a mining guideline document last year to safeguard biological diversity.
In the foreword to these guidelines both ministers stated that “some places are sacrosanct – they have such high conservation value that we together commit not to disturb!”
As a result, Ibutho and the Department of Mineral Resources should recognise the Imfolozi wilderness area as sacrosanct, and therefore a no-go area for mining.
The conservation agency is also concerned that the environmental impact (EIA) process was being rushed, to comply with the “unreasonably challenging time frames” of the Mineral and Petroleum Development Act.
Ezemvelo said the apparent plan to finalise the EIA and environmental management plan within three months was not feasible.
The conservation agency has raised several other concerns about the current “weakness” of several aspects of the EIA study plan, the potential for serious groundwater pollution and the “inaccurate and misleading” statements by consultants on the visual impacts of the Fuleni mine.
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