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Mapungubwe emerges as new theatre in tussle between mining and ecotourism - 17 April 2009

By: Christy van der Merwe
Engineering News

The consistently contentious question of whether or not mining, ecotourism and agriculture can co-exist, was once again highlighted during the public consultation process for Coal of Africa Limited’s (CoAL’s) Vele colliery, near the Mapungubwe World Heritage landscape in Limpopo.

The consultation, held in Musina on Thursday, formed part of the environmental impact assessment (EIA), which will be submitted, along with the environmental management plan (EMP) to the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME), at the end of April explained CoAL COO Riaan van der Merwe.

The DME would then consult with relevant government departments and stakeholders, before making a decision on whether or not the mining licence should be granted. The final application for a new-order mining right was submitted by CoAL to the DME in November 2009.

DME spokesperson Bheki Khumalo told Mining Weekly Online that the department was still considering the application and refrained from providing a specific timeline. He said that the department was fully aware of the issues surrounding this specific mining licence application.

In the awarding of a mining license, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (Deat) acts as a commenting authority, and Deat external communications director Roopa Singh told Mining Weekly Online that the department has submitted its input on the Vele colliery to the DME.

In response to a question in Parliament in February 2009, Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said that “it is the opinion of Deat that it could not at this stage, with the information available, support the awarding of the mining right in this area, for this proposed project, due to detrimental environmental consideration”.

It was, however, unclear whether or not this had changed in light of further information on the project being made available. Deat was given an opportunity to comment on the EMP and scoping report dated December 2008.

THE PROPOSED PROJECT

Currently, on-site activity includes further exploration drilling, and final assessments for the EIA by environmental field experts.

The proposed Vele colliery site is located adjacent the Limpopo river, which forms the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. The closest town is Musina.

Van der Merwe noted that the mine's western boundary is situated seven kilometres East of the Mapungubwe National Park boundary, and the coal processing plant infrastructure would be 27 km from the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site (Mapungubwe Hill).

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape became South Africa’s fifth World Heritage site in July 2003, and in May 2004, it was officially announced as the Mapungubwe National Park. The site was discovered in 1933, and is said to be where an Iron Age metropolis was ruled by an African king almost one thousand years ago.

The proposed Vele colliery was said to have the potential to produce five-million tons a year of coking coal, starting with one-million tons a year and ramping up to full capacity by 2011, and had a life-of-mine stretching beyond 2040.

The mine would include both underground and open cast operations.

Rail allocation has been secured for the Vele coking project, and CoAL’s Makhado project with Transnet Freight Rail for one-million tons a year to the Matola dry bulk terminal. The rail capacity matched the one-million tons a year port allocation for the export of coking coal from both the Vele and Makhado projects.

Steelmaker ArcelorMittal South Africa has also indicated an interest in procuring metallurgical coal from the company.

Vele could also supply a ’middlings’ product to the Independent Power Producer (IPP), Mulilo Energy, which could be situated close to the project, although CoAL said it was not reliant on the sale of coal to the power station to make its colliery feasible.

But the power station plan was also being opposed by a number of interested and affected parties in the area. Mulilo Energy has submitted a proposal to Eskom to provide electricity to the utility as an IPP under the multi-site base load independent power producer programme. The power station would ultimately produce about 900 MW, and initial designs show that it could be situated directly below the CoAL tenement area.

CoAL stated that during the construction phase of the mine, some 14 000 direct and indirect jobs could be created, while about 30 000 direct and indirect jobs could be created once the mine was operational.

“CoAL believes that it is possible for ecotourism, agriculture and mining in this area to co-exist in harmony. Modern mining methods and best-practice will be implemented to ensure that the mine's footprint makes as little negative impact on the area as possible,” Van der Merwe commented.

He added that rehabilitation would be concurrent with mining and good environmental management and monitoring would be part of the day-to-day running of the mine.

“We intend managing the mine in accordance with the vision of the proposed transfrontier conservation Area. Mitigating measures will ensure that all risks associated with mining as evaluated in the EIA will be minimised,” emphasized Van der Merwe.

The company has noted various mitigation measures, including soil and land impacts, biodiversity impacts, surface and ground water impacts, noise impacts, air quality impacts, visual impacts, and heritage impacts.

But not all interested and affected parties were convinced that the project was in the best interests of the area.

“Even with the best environmental controls, the environmental degradation caused by coal mining, similar to that around Witbank, will kill any hopes of growing tourism, both international and local, to this prime pristine area of Africa,” said Mopane Bush Lodge operator Paul Hatty.

The fear was that if the Vele mine was approved, more coal mines would be established in the area. “Anglo Coal has already purchased four farms even closer to the National Park and Heritage Site, and three other farms next to Mapungubwe Park entrance show promising signs of exploitable coal,” Hatty added.

Edited by: Terence Creamer