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How to Mine and Shine

Posted by Dan Sonnenberg
Tuesday, 31 May 2011  |  Comments
Dan Sonnenberg
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Several years ago, a public outcry stopped Richards Bay Minerals from mining at St Lucia on South Africa’s East Coast, to avoid destroying its tourism potential.

But no significant tourism has taken place and, in the time that has passed, the area could have been mined and rehabilitated.

Last week, CoAL paid a R9,25-million penalty to the Department of Environ-mental Affairs as part of a ‘rectification application’, in line with Section 24G of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema), 107 of 1998.

This may be an indication that South Africa is arriving at a balance that will permit mining in areas sensitive to tourism, provided there is full environmental compliance.

A plus is that CoAL’s opencast Vele mine will be concurrently rehabilitated.

CoAL CEO John Wallington has reiterated that visitors to the Mapungubwe park will not “see or hear” the mining activities at Vele.

An organisation that promotes simultaneous economic growth and biodiversity is the South African National Bio-diversity Institute (Sanbi), a statutory body that has helpful information resources that are put at the disposal of the mining industry free of charge. Sanbi is pro- development and gives guidance on sensitive areas.

Using Sanbi’s maps, mining companies are able to plan around sensitive areas, and augment the tight capacity predicament of the Department of Mineral Resources.

In government’s delivery agreement for environmental matters – outcome ten – is a very specific requirement for Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa and Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu to come up with an agreed map of sensitive environmental areas, for which Sanbi is able to provide the biodiversity layer.

For prospective miners in an acutely environmentally conscious world, Sanbi can streamline decision-making.

A coal-mining project in Mpumalanga is currently being coordinated within a broader Global Environment Facility-fund grasslands project, of which Sanbi is the custodian.

This five-year programme within a 20-year project mainstreams biodiversity considerations into the production sectors of South Africa’s grasslands regions, taking into account urbanisation, forestry, coal mining and agriculture.

A strategic approach to coal mining in Mpumalanga is under way to ensure that biodiversity and mining can coexist, on the basis that not every bit of coal deposit is needed to meet South Africa’s energy needs.

Coal mining in Mpumalanga needs to be tackled in a balanced manner that serves South Africa’s growth and employment needs in both mining and in tourism, as well as optimal water yield.

Sanbi’s strength is that it maps priority areas and summarises on these maps complex environmental information that can link social and labour plans with biodiversity business opportunities.

Currently, South Africa’s Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) has jurisdiction over environmental matters and the MPRDA’s overlap with Nema needs to be reconciled.

Sanbi has spent a decade fine-tuning products that can help to streamline developmental decision-making.

“Our whole ethos is to have biodiversity and development,” Sanbi chief director bioregional programmes Kristal Maze tells Mining Weekly in a video interview.

Sanbi’s information is freely available online at, where registered users are able to download a variety of geographic information system shape files for overlay on mining development footprints well ahead of environ- mental impact assessments.

“The maps enable us to take a really strategic view of optimal economic development futures for landscapes,” Maze adds.

They show priority wetlands, threatened ecosystems and nature-reserve-based tourism opportunity areas.

A book entitled Biodiversity for Development, available at, introduces a number of new ways of working with the South African government’s developmental agenda.

The focus of Sanbi coal-mining coordinator for the grasslands programme Dan Sonnenberg is to help government and mining companies to make better decisions about where coal mining takes place in Mpumalanga in particular.

Sonnenberg estimates that current applications for coal mining cover two-thirds of Mpumalanga, based on South Africa’s energy needs.

The programme allows coal-mining decisions to dovetail with ecosystem and water considerations.

The programme is providing a good understanding of the critically endangered ecosystems and the extent to which these must be protected in order to maintain their integrity.

“We can easily work out where mining can go ahead and where it shouldn’t go ahead,” Sonnenberg explains to Mining Weekly in a video interview.

Although underground mining can have surface-subsidence impacts, depending on the method used, it is seen as being prefer-able to opencast mining.

A guideline brochure is being prepared for regulators and prospectors in order to mitigate risk.

“We’re starting to develop the maps and we’ll be discussing these issues in detail in the next few weeks.

“What we are trying to offer is more information to the regulator and to mining companies so that they are able to make better-informed decisions,” says Sonnen-berg, who expects the guideline to be available before the end of 2011

Vele Shaping Future?

The ‘rectification’ fine that CoAL has had to pay the Department of Environ-mental Affairs follows an integrated water-use licence being granted to the company by the Department of Water Affairs.

These two steps indicate that the Vele project is close to the point of being allowed to resume development, which Nema stopped.

“All that remains is the granting of a record of decision. We’ve completed the process, which means that we’ve complied with Nema in all its respects,” Wallington tells Mining Weekly.

CoAL has been working on its rectification application relating to an environmental authorisation for the Vele colliery for the past eight months.

Wallington is committed to ensuring that mining and rehabilitation take place concurrently at the Vele opencast coal mine, which is 15 km from the border of the Mapungubwe National Park.

If given the go-ahead, the proposed Vele underground mine will take 30 years to reach the point that is 6 km from the border of the park, which is outside the legislated buffer zone. The border is, in turn, 30 km away from the park’s sandstone Mapungubwe hill that was once the citadel of the Iron Age people.

CoAL has plans to produce five-million tons of soft coking coal from Vele for 25 years, and its Makhado project, also in Limpopo province, has the potential to produce another five-million tons a year for 20 years, with other assets able to add to that in the future.

CoAL expects to produce at least ten- million tons a year of a high-value product that South Africa does not produce, and which it currently imports.

As the mine progresses, money can be invested into the region, as has happened at De Beers’ rich established Venetia diamond, which is equidistant from Mapungubwe and which sponsored the establishment of the park.

“Venetia has not scarred Mapungubwe at all, but it has actually helped to create the park, and we can add to what Venetia has done.

“This is a good example of coexistence and how mining can actually help conservation meet some of its goals,” says Wallington.

South Africa, like Chile, Canada and Australia, has mining as one of its biggest income earners and biggest employment generators, and Wallington’s view is that the 7%- a-year growth aspiration of South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan will be unattainable if Vele-type-compliant mine projects are prevented from being built.

Gordhan has repeatedly expressed the belief that it has become opportune for South Africa to proclaim a new “national intent” of pursuing an economic path that targets sustained gross domestic product growth of 7% for a period of 20 years.

Wallington’s contention is that South Africa does not have a hope of reaching the 7% economic growth if it disallows Vele-type projects from going ahead.

He points out that coking coal has made the Australian state of Queensland one of the richest in the world and sees the potential for Makhado and Vele to do something similar for Limpopo province.

CoAL has an offtake agreement with steelmaker ArcelorMittal South Africa, which owns 16,3% of CoAL. The steelmaker will buy the first tons from Vele and Makhado and there will be rail partnerships between the two companies for the life of both mines.

“I guess the concern is that once you’ve got one mine there, it’s a foot in the door, and there’s going to be a massive proliferation of mining that is going to damage the whole area and turn it into a Witbank.

“But my belief is that if every mine is subjected to the same scrutiny that we are being subjected to, there will be full compliance. Vele mine is going to be run with extremely tight compliance,” Wallington assures Mining Weekly.

How to mine and shine
By: Martin Creamer
Published: 20th May 2011

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