Open-cast· coal mine a threat to Springs wetland

WITH hands covered with liver spots, Stan Madden points out the expanse of Aston Lake glimmering  in  the  distance Fields of near-ripened meal­ies and clusters of soya beans stretch across this fertile, wet­land-sodden landscape on the outskirts of Springs

“This whole area is covered with farms and wetlands,” enthuses Madden, his face creased with wrinkles.

“It’s one of the finest areas in Gauteng for farming.”

But perhaps not for much longer. A new mining rush is under way in Springs, where companies are eager  to  get to the coal that runs beneath Madden’s feet.

In one of the latest bids, Pandospan, a subsidiary of Canyon Coal, on behalf of An­ glo Operations, is hoping to get the green light for its proposed open-cast mine, Palmietkuilen, right here.

For Madden, who is affe­ tionately known as the “Father of the Blesbokspruit”, this could spell disaster for the wetland system he has fought to safeguard since “falling in love with it” in 1948.

And, at nearly 90, Madden still has some fight left in him. “The time has come when we have to say, as custodians of our environment, that enough mining is enough.

“In Springs we live with the polluted legacy of gold mining all over. We’re left with the legacies from the horror of mining companies like Aurora Empowerment Systems.

“This hasn’t given the Springs community any faith in mining. Now they want the coal too,” he shakes his head, frustrated.

Coal miners such as Ngu­lulu Resources, Exxaro and Universal Coal have report­edly set their sights on the surrounds.

“There’s vast reserves, but the coal is very poor quality.”

He would know. Madden spent over 30 years  working at the Marievale Consolidated Mines, in the surveying depart-

ment. Anglo’s environmental consultants, Digby Wells En vironmental, acknowledge the proposed Palmietkuilen project will have major negative impacts on the receiving environment.

Its latest final environmental impact assessment report speaks of the loss of important wetland habitat and “irreversible impacts on the land use” that will also displace  households.

Canyon Coal plans to mine at least 200 000 tons of coal a month over the next 53 years.

Locals claim thousands of people will be affected, but Canyon Coal dismisses some claims that as many as 10 000 people could be forced out as “sensation seeking”.

Digby Wells Environmental says the wetland systems “play an important ecological role” as tributaries of the Blesbok­ spruit Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, and some of the project area is mapped as critical biodiversity areas.

In their written comments, affected maize farms like Schoeman Umbilo Boerdery, which contributes 10% of Gauteng’s agriculture; tell how, “farmland can produce food for a nation for thousands of years – the life of an opencast coal mine is a drip in a bucket in comparison”.

Large egg producer Rossgro too says coal mining impacts will “have a· destroying effect” on its broiler business. · “Clean air, minimum noise and uncontaminated water are key components to a chicken broiler and egg producing business.”

“It will be a travesty ·of jus­tice if this open-cast coal mine is allowed to go ahead on this farm, · which produces  10% of the agricultural ,output  of Gauteng,” says attorney Philip de Jager, who represents several communities in the coal mining fight. “It will cause the permanent destruction of some of the best agricultural land in Gauteng.”

He has lodged appeals against the granting of a mining right to Canyon Coal for an adjoining  farm.

If it fails and a mining right is granted for Palmiet­ kuilen then “this will mean the communities of Aston Lake and Largo will be completely surrounded by open cast coal mines, which will have a major negative impact in Springs”.

Michelle Winn, and her hus­band, Graham agree. They run a top equestrian facility, just outside Springs. “Look, our horses drink from our bore­holes. If that’s contaminated, we’ve got a huge problem. They already don’t like the water because of mining contamin­ation.

“We have 85 horses on our property, among them valu­able imported horses. If they can’t drink, they’ll have to move, which means our busi­ness shuts down. We already have  horses  with  lung  allergies, because of all these mine dumps.”

Elias Letseleha, who lives in an informal settlement near the proposed mine, says many locals need work.

“We’ve heard rumours that we will be moved but we don’t know for sure.”

The report predicts ·there will be decant points into the surrounding environment and it is anticipated this decant will be acid-forming.

“These areas are in dir­ect contact with the sensitive wetlands of the surrounding landscape and are all wetlands drain in into the Aston Lake and surrounding wetlands.

“This represents major negative  impacts  to the wet­lands and water resources of the local area and catchment.” In 1986, the .Blesbokspruit, which feeds the Marievale Bird Sanctuary in Springs and flows into the . Vaal was designated a  Ramsar  wetland  of   inter­national importance.

But it was- later placed on the Montreux Record because of  gold mining pollution.

The Anglo project has now endangered efforts, he says, to get it removed from the Montreux Record, spurred by the completion of the Depart­ment of Water Affairs and Sanitation’s new acid mine drainage treatment plant at the nearby Grootvlei mine, which discharges partially treated mine water – with high sul­phate loads – into the Blesbok­ spruit. “We want it back to its full status,” says Madden. “There’s a lot of work being done by provincial state conservation authorities. I’ve been monitoring bird populations and they’re going up, despite the pollution.”

But the irony for De Jager and Madden · is that  in 2012, Anglo donated 750ha of land known as the Anglo Reserve, located within the Ramsar area to Gauteng, to have the area in­corporated into the Marievale Bird sanctuary.

“Taxpayers’ money was used to erect the Rlbn AMD plant and will have to foot the bill to treat any further ;AMD from the proposed mine,” says De Jager, in an angry recent letter to the Department of Mineral Resource’s environ­mental directorate.

“It beggars belief that the applicant could donate its pristine reserve to the province, on the one hand, and then a few years later elect to commence with open cast coal mining, which could lead to the de­struction of the Ramsar site and destroy the huge potential for ecotourism in this new enlarged sanctuary.”

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for Sustainable En­vironment, says the additional salinity from the proposed mine will result in “unaccept­able levels of salinity, profound and irreversible impacts on the Blesbokspruit’s ecosystem and water security risks to the Vaal River system, including down stream water users”.

Canyon Coal says it strives to conduct its operations “in the most . environmentally conscious way” to create “the smallest footprint possible”.

Clifford HaJ.latt, its exploration and mine development manager, says the need for the project and its desirability as well as mitigation measures are clearly set out in the final EIA report.

“The report was finalised after all the concerns and objections raised during the thorough public participation was addressed and incorporated. It was made available to all inter­ested and affected parties.”



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