The Minister of Environmental affairs, Dr Edna Molewa, has said that mining and its associated activities in the Mabola area is strictly regulated in terms of South Africa’s mining and biodiversity guideline.

The minister, who is set to be appointed the first Chancellor of the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University on Friday said,

It has become necessary to correct misinformation in the public space around the granting of environmental authorisation to Atha-Africa Ventures, to conduct coal-mining operations in the Mabola region of Mpumalanga.

The environmental authorisation was issued in terms of section 48 of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (NEMPAA) 2003.

Accoring to the minister,a number of allegations have been made by nongovernmental organisations that the decision of the ministers of environmental affairs and mineral resources was irregular – that (a) due regard was not given to the environmental effects of the said mining activity, (b) that the decision was taken “in secret”, and that (c) the public was not consulted.

The South African government is ever-mindful of the need to ensure that any development undertaken takes environmental considerations into account, and as such we have a comprehensive set of laws and policy instruments to ensure that all this country’s natural resources, including mineral resources, are managed in a sustainable manner.

Among them is the National Environmental Management Act, the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, and the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act.

In addition, policy instruments exist such as environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments.

No permission for mining-related activity may be granted until the applicant has received authorisations from relevant organs of state that have jurisdiction in respect of the activity, including a water use licence, mining right and approved environmental management plan (EMP), as well as an environmental authorisation.

Atha-Africa Ventures has received all of the above-mentioned permissions.

Mining protected environments

The Mabola region is both a critical water catchment area and a biodiversity priority area; thus, mining and its associated activities in this area are also strictly regulated in terms of our mining and biodiversity guideline.

This guideline, formulated by the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Mineral Resources, the Chamber of Mines, the South African Mining and Biodiversity Forum and the South African National Biodiversity Institute, identifies four categories of biodiversity priority areas in terms of their importance, and the risk and implications for mining therein.

Categories of the legally protected areas are nature reserves, national parks, and special nature reserves where mining is prohibited. Another is a protected environment, such as the Mabola region.

This is the only category where mining may be allowed, with written permission from the two ministers and under strict conditions. This is not the first time mining has taken place in this area.

Until 2011 the prospecting rights for Mabola were held by BHP Billiton. The area has been subject to numerous mining and prospecting interests, as several licences have been issued in the past.

The departments of environmental affairs and mineral resources have laid out strict conditions that the licence-holder must meet.

From an environmental perspective, these are, among others, that;

  • an EMP must be in place;
  • that a plant rescue and protection plan (with specific focus on conservation important species) must be submitted to the department;
  • that activities that may encroach into a water resource are not allowed without authorisation from the Department of Water and Sanitation;
  • that stringent and appropriate dust suppression measures must be applied;
  • that measures to mitigate and manage acid mine drainage must be applied;
  • and that the licence-holder must establish an environmental-management committee

Atha-Africa Ventures also has to submit quarterly compliance reports to the department on the status of conditions of the permit as well as on progress in meeting the targets of the draft Mabola EMP.

All of the above taken into consideration, it is incorrect to say that the applicant has been granted permission to mine “with minimal caveats”.

The department is satisfied that subject to compliance with the permit conditions issued to Atha-Africa Ventures, our decision will not conflict with the NEMPAA, and that any potentially detrimental environmental effects resulting from the said mining activity can be mitigated to acceptable levels.

Concerns raised around the public participation process.

The mining right, water use license application and environmental authorisation all have inherent public participation processes spelt out in terms of their respective legislative provisions.

However, section 48 of the NEMPAA is not explicit about the requirement of a public participation process, except for Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA), which was fully complied with as required in the two processes mentioned above.

The legislation also does not make provision for an internal appeal process to the ministers’ decision, but any aggrieved party may approach a relevant court to review the permission in terms of the PAJA.

It is not true, therefore, that there has been diminishing transparency around decisions on the granting of mining licences.

The mining sector continues to play a key role in the economies of Africa, and it has come a long way in pursuing actions that seek to avoid, minimise and mitigate the harmful effects of mining on sensitive ecosystems.

The principle of sustainable development guides our actions as a country, as we seek to balance the need for environmental conservation with justifiable economic development.

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