Department of Environmental Affairs deputy director-general Ishaam Abader. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Department of Environmental Affairs deputy director-general Ishaam Abader. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

TRANSNET’s plan to deepen and widen berths at its Durban container terminal has run into problems with the rejection of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report it submitted on grounds that include that it failed to take climate change seriously.

The rejection of the report has led opponents of the port expansion in south Durban to label Transnet and its consultants "climate-change denialists" who do not believe that the sea level will rise or that possible extreme storm surges could cause havoc in the port.

The expansion at Pier 2 precedes the government’s mega-project to build a new port for Durban as part of its more than R1-trillion infrastructure drive. However, it is a foretaste of the community and environmental opposition the company can expect when public consultation for the port expansion gets under way. The expansion is one of the government’s 18 strategic integrated projects, prioritised by the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Commission.

In a letter dated October 21 2013 addressed to Nemai Consulting, the primary contractor that undertook the study, Department of Environmental Affairs deputy director-general Ishaam Abader states that the feasibility study on sea-level rise "does not adequately address how climate change risks such as sea-level rise and coastal storm surges will be addressed".

This part of the study was compiled by ZAA Engineering Projects and Naval Architecture.

The department criticises the report for failing to assess climate change risks properly before construction starts. Transnet is required to amend the report to include this, as well as address the consequences of proposed changes to the harbour’s central sandbank.

Community groups, representing both subsistence fishermen and environmentalists, claim attempts by Transnet to make changes to he sandbank will cause an ecological and socioeconomic disaster.

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance co-ordinator Des D’Sa said the sandbank provided a "nursery" for a range of fish species, which were ecologically important and provided thousands of fisher folk with livelihoods. The EIA report proposed that mitigation measures be put in place to avoid ecological destruction and that these would be monitored.

However, the department said this was no substitute for a proper risk assessment of the ecological issues in the first place, which it said the report had not covered.

To try to mitigate the effects while construction and implementation were already under way would amount to "piecemeal decision-making" and gave no indication of what the risks and associated costs would be.

University of KwaZulu-Natal professor and director of the Centre for Civil Society, Patrick Bond, who is opposing both the Pier 2 deepening and the larger dugout port expansion, said the consultants employed by Transnet to compile the report were "climate denialists" who had used data that purposefully under-stated the climate change risks.

Michael Comninos, an associate at ZAA, said he could not comment on the EIA as only Transnet could do so. "All I can say is that the climate change issues were addressed."

ZAA’s report did explore the climate change risks, but concluded that "several centuries are likely to elapse before sea-level rise could seriously affect the new works".

Prof Bond said this conclusion was based on the use of old data by ZAA. "The general thrust is they are using information which is five years out of date to make the fake case that sea-level rise and storms are not a significant risk.

"But now there is evidence that these storms can be really extreme. It would be insane of a big shipping company to invest in such a project without a higher degree of confidence that the risks are minimal," he said.

Transnet National Ports Authority spokeswoman Lesley van Duffelen said the EIA report was being updated with the additional information and would be resubmitted by the end of this month.

Department of Environmental Affairs spokesman Albi Modise on Friday confirmed that the department had rejected the EIA report and was awaiting its resubmission.

The grounds for rejection included the removal of part of the central sand bank, which was an ecological issue, and climate-change issues.

"The proposed development should consider adequately the climate-change risks such as sea-level rise and coastal storm surges, as well as any other associated risks, and should also indicate mitigation in this regard," he said.