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Dune mining approved despite toxic worry

  Friday, 20 July 2012
 Tony Carnie (The Mercury)
Dune mining approved despite toxic worry

"The government has given the go-ahead for a large-scale, controversial dune mining venture on the doorstep of Mtunzini and the adjoining Umlalazi Nature Reserve."

Although the environmental approval was granted on paper to SA-based company Exxaro KZN Sands, the ultimate beneficiary is the New Tronox group, an Australian-based company which emerged from the bankrupt ashes of a corporation which left a trail of environmental degradation across several parts of North America.

Despite polluting 22 states in the US with nuclear waste, wood poisons, rocket fuel, mining waste, oil and gas, the Tronox parent company, Kerr-McGee, walked away from the environment clean-up costs, pocketing another $785 million “on the way out the door”, Tronox attorney David J Zott told a US Bankruptcy Court judge in 2009.

Now legally “cleansed” of its toxic past, New Tronox has concluded a business deal with Exxaro Mineral resources which would give it access to the new dune mining business at Mtunzini, with Exxaro retaining a 38.5 percent shareholding.

The Fairbreeze project, valued at between R1.4 billion and R2.4bn, aims to extract heavy minerals such as titanium, zircon, rutile and leucoxene, 99 percent of which would be exported to make paint and ceramic pigments, welding rods and motor car components.

However, parts of the mine will be just 100m from a coastal resort town which derives much of its income from ecologically based tourism.

The mine is also expected to have harmful impacts on Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s popular Umlalazi Nature Reserve, the Siyaya Coastal Forest and the Twinstreams environmental education centre set up several decades ago by the Wildlife and Environment Society.

Late last week, the KZN Department of Environmental Affairs granted written mining approval to Exxaro in terms of a Basic Assessment Report (BAR), a much-abbreviated process which is less rigorous than a full-scale Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Fairbreeze was not expected to create new mining jobs, but the department said it would preserve the 240 jobs at Exxaro’s existing Hillendale mine near Richards Bay (which is due to close at the end of this year) and another 440 jobs at Exxaro’s mineral processing plant at Empangeni.

The department acknowledged in its written decision that the Fairbreeze mine would lead to a wide variety of detrimental impacts for the environment, Mtunzini residents and visitors.

However, it believed some of these impacts could be rehabilitated over time.

“The economic benefits associated with the development of Fairbreeze mine are huge in terms of retaining jobs, GDP and expenditure in the local markets during construction,” the environmental affairs department said.

To compensate for the damage to indigenous vegetation, wetlands and biological richness of the area, the department has also recommended that Exxaro/New Tronox establish a trust to acquire and protect new land as part of a “biological offset” proposal.

The mining company should create this trust within a year and make as yet unquantified annual payments to finance new offset areas and pay for rehabilitation for up to 33 years after mining ended.

Altogether, the mining company has been authorised to extract heavy minerals from about 660ha of land around Mtunzini, in a lease area covering about 4 000ha.

The department noted that the mine would lead to a significant increase in traffic in the area, with about 360 daily truck journeys to and from Empangeni.

The mine would create extra noise impacts 24 hours daily from bulldozers, pump stations and large jets of water to collapse mining ore, but noise levels were not expected to exceed gazetted standards for rural areas.

There would also be negative visual impacts in several parts of the town and nature reserve as mining entailed destroying vegetation and exposing large areas of red soil.

The department recommended that Exxaro/Tronox plant large stands of trees and vegetation to hide these impacts, try to control the level of dust near the town and also aim its lights away from residential areas.

“Due to the value of the natural coastal environment which contributes towards the current local economy in the uMlalazi municipal area, the community has highlighted the possible detrimental effects that the development will have on the tourism economy … However, the department is satisfied that the (recommended) mitigation measures will adequately mitigate the identified impacts in the Mtunzini area,” the department said.

Ezemvelo could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

However, the regional conservation manager of the Wildlife and Envrionment Society, Bianca McKelvey, said the society would contest the authorisation.

Although some of the most sensitive areas close to the Umlalazi reserve had been excluded from mining, the society still had several major concerns about the project.

The Mtunzini Conservancy, representing local residents opposed to the mining, has also voiced disappointment and indicated that an appeal would be lodged with the department within the next 20 days.

Spokeswoman Barbara Chedzey said if this appeal failed, the conservancy might also consider taking the case on review to the high court.

Quite apart from environmental degradation, loss of property value and concern over the Tronox parent group’s poor environmental record in the US, Chedzey noted that the new mine would consume about 48 million litres of water a day.

“Our village consumes less in a month and in the adjoining rural areas, a roll-out of taps to every home will be jeopardised by the mine,” she said.

Tronox attorney Michael J Foster has indicated previously that the company looked forward to discussing some of the concerns “at some time in the future”.

Exxaro corporate affairs spokesman Hilton Atkinson welcomed the approval, but said on Thursday that some authorisations were still needed and mining could only begin when all these authorisations were in place.

 

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