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Acid threat to St Lucia heritage site

As the newly elected officials take their places, the continuing abuse of our water and natural resources continued unchecked. This article describes how coal mining threatens a World Heritage Site with acid mine drainage. We need to make sure that the conservation organisers and people’s organisations work together to fight this!!  —Mary Galvin

Pollution from a planned coal mine on the Imfolozi game reserve borderline is likely to ripple out much further to cause acid mine drainage and water starvation in the nearby Lake St Lucia and iSimangaliso World Heritage Site.

This is the fear of Andrew Zaloumis, the chief executive of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, following plans by the Ibutho Coal group to detonate a major coal seam on the southern borderline of the flagship Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal.

In a letter to Ibutho’s environmental consultants, Zaloumis said the proposed mine was close to the Mfolozi River, one of the most important rivers feeding the Lake St Lucia estuary and World Heritage Site.

One of his major concerns was the risk of acid mine drainage entering the lake via the river. Acid mine drainage happened when natural deposits of iron sulphides in a coal seam were exposed to air and water, creating sulphuric acid.

“Without proper management, these acids find their way into the surrounding waterways. As long as rain falls on the mine and mine tailings (mine dumps) the production of sulphuric acid continues, whether the mine is operating or not.”

Coal mining could also burden the Mfolozi with greater loads of sediments and pollutants and possibly alter groundwater and aquifer purity. “The St Lucia system is one of the most important estuaries in South Africa. It is the largest of only three estuarine lake systems in the country, with a water surface of 300km2 and a shoreline of over 400km.


“It incorporates over 80 percent of the estuarine area of the southern African subtropical region and 60 percent of the estuarine area of the country, making it the most important nursery ground for juvenile marine fish and prawns on the east coast.”

As a result, the lake system was crucial to the local and national economy by providing a nursery and breeding area for sea fishes. Any pollution of this highly sensitive environment should be prevented.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Authority was also worried about the increasing volume of regional water being used for mining and other purposes in the Mfolozi catchment, ultimately reducing the volume of fresh water feeding St Lucia.

Zaloumis said initial studies on the water impacts of the proposed Fuleni coal mine appeared to ignore the wider, cumulative impacts on the region, focusing only on the area directly next to the mine.

“This is a serious omission given the international status, ecological significance and developments occurring in the downstream World Heritage Site,” said Zaloumis, calling for a strategic environmental assessment on broader, regional impacts.

The latest concerns about the Fuleni project coincided with mounting opposition from other environmental groups, including an online petition signed by nearly 44 000 objectors to the project.

The petition, co-ordinated by the global Avaaz network, would be sent to the national mining minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi.

It reads: “As citizens from across South Africa, we are appalled by the possibility of a coal mine being developed right on the borders of the spectacular Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. This mine will threaten the world’s greatest rhino sanctuary at a time when South Africa is losing a bloody war against rhino poachers.

“It will also wreck the wilderness and undermine people’s rights. As the Minister of Mineral Resources, you can stop this dirty coal mine in its tracks. We call on you to scrap this project and forbid all future mining around the park.”

● Ibutho Coal has declined opportunities to comment on the criticism about its proposed mining venture.

Responding to requests for comment last month, spokeswoman Megan Hunter said the company did not wish to make any public comment in the media at this stage as this could “compromise onward engagement processes with various important stakeholders”.

“As soon as we are able to comment or contribute meaningfully, we will gladly do so.”

Written by Bryan Ashe