Mining and wetlands: Uneasy bedfellows

Mining poses severe threats to wetlands in particular. Unfortunately, Verloren Valei is situated in an area rich in minerals. We need to be alive to the dangers, particularly as illegal mining operations are becoming more common.

Without water there would be no life on earth. South Africa does not have an abundance of water, and the water in many streams is polluted. Both droughts and floods are common. Wetlands play a critical role in protecting and regulating this scarce resource, and thus anything that threatens them ultimately threatens all life. Unfortunately, that puts them on a collision course with mining.

Artesian spring contaminated with water polluted with sulphates
Artesian spring contaminated with water polluted with sulphates

First, let’s remind ourselves exactly what wetlands actually do. At the most basic level, they act as reservoirs of water, and so reduce the severity of droughts and floods by regulating streamflow. This, in turn, reduces erosion. They also purify the water they hold, and replenish groundwater and aquifers.

Wetlands also provide a rich habitat for many different plants and animals, so contributing to biodiversity.

Beside these indirect benefits to society, wetlands also provide many direct benefits in the form of resources such as fibre for making crafts, grazing for livestock, valuable fisheries, and waterfowl and other wildlife that can be hunted. They are inevitably areas of intense natural beauty, an important consideration that’s all too often overlooked, and one that greatly enhances our quality of life.

Until very recently the benefits of wetlands to society were often not recognised, and many wetlands have been destroyed or poorly managed. The Department of Environmental Affairs website is blunt:

The 2011 National Biodiversity Assessment reveals that 65% of our wetland types are under threat (48% critically endangered, 12% endangered and 5% vulnerable). Only 11% of wetland ecosystem types are well protected, with 71% not protected at all.

Protected wetlands, like Verloren Valei (Provincial Protected Area and registered Ramsar site) as well as the newly declared Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment (2017) are obviously extremely important in this scenario.

Mining’s devastating impact

Topography and plant life are the main creators of wetlands (see below), but they are affected by other factors, many of which are the result of human activity. Some of this activity might occur outside the wetland proper but within its catchment area, and could include agriculture or forestry, roads, urban development or mining—all of which would decrease the amount of water reaching the wetland or affect water quality.

Of course, human or other activity on the wetland itself would also play a role. Examples would include fire, planting of exotic vegetation, overgrazing and trampling, cultivation, mining and so on.

Opencast coal mining must be highlighted because its impact is so disruptive and catastrophic, and it is so common in the area. The rocks associated with coal are very likely to contain the mineral pyrite, an iron sulphide (FeS2). Mining exposes large quantities of pyrite which, when exposed to water containing dissolved oxygen, oxidises and produces sulphuric acid—acid water, in layman’s terms.

The acidic water in the mine void also leaches numerous salts (particularly sodium and magnesium) and heavy metals (including manganese, copper, zinc and in rare instances arsenic, uranium, mercury, lead, nickel, cobalt and cadmium) from the broken rock. Aluminium also leaches into the water.

Most of the seep and valley-bottom wetlands and pans are dependent on groundwater discharge and would therefore also be polluted. The fact that pans are surrounded by their own watershed (of which the mining area will form part) makes them particularly vulnerable to this form of pollution, since there is no possibility of removal of the toxic materials by natural flushing. These toxic materials will, over time, accumulate and eventually destroy all aquatic life, transforming the pans into virtually sterile, toxic pools. In addition, the soils of the area will become dispersive and erode. They too will be polluted with heavy metals and sulphates.

This pollution plume, spreading into the surrounding, undisturbed sandstone, will eventually displace fresh groundwater and its appearance on the surface will inevitably occur. It is not uncommon that the pH of this water can typically be around 2.5, which is very acidic indeed. The soils around and downstream of such seeps become acidic and saline, and most of the plants growing in the vicinity die, as depicted in the picture below, taken close to the town of Carolina.[1]

It is possible to take mitigation measures to slow down this process, but the generation of acid is only deferred—it cannot be halted. As a result, mining licences should only be granted after the extensive environmental impact assessments mandated by law have been completed (see the sidebar on the legal protection for wetlands). In an area like ours, where important wetlands are located, and in a country where so many wetlands have already been lost, mining needs to be treated with extreme caution. It is thus very worrying that there are signs that illegal mining is on the increase in the area, and that Government is either unable or unwilling to enforce its own laws. Lack of capacity may be one reason, but one cannot help thinking that the corruption blighting all spheres of public life may be playing a role.

Editor’s Note:

It is particularly worrying that there seems to be some illegal coal mining occurring next to the Lakenvlei Protected Environment, and that the Department of Mineral Resources accepted a new prospecting application within this protected environment a week after the declaration was Gazetted. Lakenvlei lies between Dullstroom and Belfast, and —there is a website to raise support to fight the illegal mining. We all need to be vigilant, and any signs of mining activity near Verloren Valei should be reported to the Friends and we will take action.

On the positive side, the Water Research Commission launched a Mine Water Atlas the United Nations World Water Day event in Durban on 23 March 2017. It aims to provide the context in which decisions about mining will take place. Let’s hope it is used!

[1] The above comments are well documented and researched by Professor Terence McCarthy, PS Rossouw and other researchers.

How wetlands are formed

Water that falls as rain or snow on the catchment area, and which is not lost through evaporation or transpiration, moves through the catchment to the sea. Wetlands are found where the topography or geology slows down or obstructs the movement of water through the catchment (for example, where the topography is very flat). As a result, the surface soil layers in the wetland area become temporarily, seasonally or permanently wet.

This provides an environment where plants adapted to wet conditions, such as reeds, sedges, wet grasses and the like, grow in abundance. The plants, in turn, affect the soil and hydrology—for example, they slow down the movement of water and produce organic matter that enriches the soil. The plants provide shelter and food for particular animal species.

Wetlands and the law

Any land proclaimed as a Protected Area under Section 48 of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act and the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill is protected against any form of mining. A Protected Environment is covered by this legislation. However, if both the Ministers of Mineral Resources and Environmental Affairs agree that the minerals round in the Protected Area are of strategic national importance, they may issue a mining right.

There are safeguards. The public and registered interested and affected parties must be consulted, and various other requirements must be fulfilled. They include liaison with the Department of Water and Sanitation, the issuing of a water-use licence and the rezoning of the land from Agricultural to Mining use by local government. In extreme cases, the MEC responsible for Minerals and Energy may even expropriate the land.

An unfortunate development is that the new Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill will give the Department of Mineral Resources the authority to issue its own Environmental Authorisations for mining applications, a function that is supposed to be under the MEC of Environmental Affairs. Under the so called “one environmental system”, the Department of Mineral Resources is striving to control the issuing of water use licenses as well. Other organs of state can only appeal such an Environmental Authorisation once it has been granted, and the appeals process might not be transparent.

Making sure the law is properly applied is another matter. Many non-governmental organisations and the Centre for Environmental Rights are playing a key role here in holding the Government accountable for its stewardship of wetlands and other Protected Areas.

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