PARTNER: Andrew Zaloumis says fostering a good relationship with those who live adjacent to the park is crucial. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
Andrew Zaloumis. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

THE coal, sand and mineral mines of KwaZulu-Natal — including illegal operations — have long worried environmental groups, who cite destruction of ecologically sensitive areas like St Lucia and the iMfolozi reserve on the North Coast.

Provincial and national government have the power to act. But, say environmental activists, they hardly lift a finger.

There are suspicions that local politicians give in to the promise of lucrative shareholdings.

The source of current concern is a planned coal mine on the southern border of the iMfolozi game reserve and an existing, partly illegal coal mine on the western border of the reserve.

Among fears being raised are that being close to the iMfolozi River, the major river feeding the Lake St Lucia estuary and iSimangaliso World Heritage site, any pollution from the mines, like acid drainage, would pollute the wildlife sanctuary.

"Without proper management, these acids find their way into the surrounding waterways," said Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

"As long as rain falls on the mine and tailings (mine dumps) production of sulphuric acid continues, whether the mine is operating or not." Mr Zaloumis was speaking about a proposed coal mine, called Fuleni, that Ibutho Coal wants to set up.

The Fuleni mine has also galvanised veteran conservationist Ian Player into action.

Dr Player founded the iMfolozi wilderness area in 1958 and fears a large part could be destroyed by mining. He has led about 7,000 conservation-minded people to sign a petition "Save Our iMfolozi wilderness". So far the petition has been signed by more than 45,000 objectors to the mine.

Megan Hunter, spokeswoman for Ibutho Coal, which emphasises on its website that it is a private company, has refused to comment on the mine or concerns about it. The website does not give a phone number but an e-mail form, which it says it will answer only if "written in english" (sic). By late on Friday Business Day had not received a response to questions.

The other mine bordering iMfolozi, Zululand Anthracite Colliery (ZAC), has been operating three illegal mine shafts since 2006 (a second opened in 2008 and a third in 2010) and an illegal stockpile of coal. When discovered this year ZAC, owned by Rio Tinto subsidiary Riversdale Mining, was fined R497,000 by the provincial department of agriculture and environmental affairs.

The "slap on the wrist" has been condemned by Democratic Alliance spokesman on conservation and environment affairs Ann McDonnell, and the Centre for Environmental Rights. The centre said the small fine was "easier, cheaper and quicker than compliance". The centre estimates the illegal shafts produced profits exceeding R105m, and should therefore have to pay a R1m fine for each of the 12 transgressions.

"The fine should have been at least R50m," said the environmental activist and project co-ordinator for Timberwatch Wally Menne. "All the money ZAC made was made out of crime. It should be forfeited to the state, which would happen if the business was selling drugs or prostitution."

He laid the blame on the authorities. "These mines are seen as cash spinners, so government turns a blind eye to what they do. It’s because of the money and the attraction of becoming a free shareholder in the mines through BEE." But the issue is more complex. Some communities, such as Mtunzini, are split between those opposing the mines due to damage to the environment and tourism, and others saying the mines provide jobs.