Gwede MIA again while ecologically important Rietvlei and surrounding communities at risk
With the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy apparently missing in action, the ambitions of Corobrik to mine above-ground coal at its Rietvlei operation threaten environmental havoc, and highlight for the umpteenth time, polluted skies and a smelly can of worms far downstream.
In a move that has raised eyebrows and environmental concerns, leading brick manufacturer Corobrik is waiting for permission from Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe to mine the untapped surface coal deposits at its open-cast clay brick production facility next to the serene Rietvlei Nature Reserve in Gauteng on Centurion’s eastern edge.
The application has sparked concern over the very likely adverse effects on local water and air quality, compounding existing environmental challenges faced by the reserve – home to a rare peatland as well as rhino, buffalo, cheetah and birdlife – and the surrounding population.
Seven years of dust
“There will be considerable dust during construction and operational phases due to the nature of the activity,” said “X”, a Centurion-based environmental consultant well acquainted with the Rietvlei area, who wishes to remain anonymous for professional reasons.
These phases, according to Corobrik’s application, are expected to last up to seven years.
“The likelihood of heightened air pollution, especially given the open-cast mining environment, is real,” X said, adding that concerns extend beyond the mine’s immediate vicinity, with projections of increased heavy traffic along Delmas Road and “the R51, one of the main ‘coal avenues’ to nearby power stations and Witbank, possibly for export from Richards Bay”.
It is a picture that calls to mind the now-ubiquitous image of endless trains of trucks carting huge volumes of coal along the roads of every province north of the Cape, blocking road flow and chewing up unmaintained provincial roads in the process, from North West and Limpopo to Free State, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.
While the mine is legally bound to monitor dust and develop dust monitoring plans, Daily Maverick has been informed by a reliable source that the application lacks air-quality modelling and health impact studies, raising questions about the true extent of the envisaged impact of air pollution.
Threat of acid mine drainage
Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment – a civic watchdog organisation that uses South Africa’s Constitution to both protect communities from the negative impacts of mining and secure access to clean water – reinforced the gravity of the situation, saying the proposed mining of coal posed a real threat.
“Coal mining … is considered a category A mine, with significant impacts on water, since pyrite occurs in the coal deposits.”
When pyrite reacts with oxygen, it releases sulphuric acid, which can cause acid mine drainage (AMD), which Liefferink describes as a serious environmental problem in South Africa and globally.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Acid water trail of death reignites concern over South Africa’s abandoned coal and gold mines
“AMD is not only associated with surface and groundwater pollution, but is also responsible for the degradation of soil quality, aquatic habitats and for allowing heavy metals to seep into the environment.”
Any such addition of AMD to the water management area without mitigation would further damage the already compromised environment, Liefferink said.
At about eight kilometres long and at some places 600m wide, the Rietvlei wetland – much of which is in the nature reserve – is correctly known as “peatland”, acknowledged by many as one of the most efficient carbon sinks on Earth, according to Hennops Revival founder Tarryn Johnston.
Rietvlei is one of the largest peatlands in a protected area in South Africa. According to various scientific studies, including from the Agricultural Research Council, peatland is a “rare feature in the southern African landscape”.
Also rare is the reserve’s endangered Bankenveld grassland “and a level one protected area, home to around 2,000 different animals and 240 different bird species”.
“The only way to truly protect the Rietvlei dam and surrounding nature reserve is to buffer around the reserve, protect it so that no one can ever mine,” X said.
Liefferink said public concerns about Corobrik’s wish to “mine, remove and store” coal deposits near the Rietvlei Dam and nature reserve had to be addressed.
Rietvlei’s existing water woes
The Rietvlei Nature Reserve and surrounding areas are already grappling with severe water quality issues, which cut across multiple municipalities and highlight how possible pollution from the Corobrik mine could exacerbate the intractable situation.
The Rietvlei Dam, a critical water source within the reserve, receives inflow from various tributaries, including the Rietvlei River. These are tainted by raw sewage from multiplying and burgeoning informal settlements, builders’ rubble and industrial and agricultural pollutants, all unchecked by any form of local, provincial or national policing.
Also on the river’s path en route to the Rietvlei wetland, which gives rise to the dam, is Ekurhuleni’s Hartbeesfontein wastewater treatment works (WWTW), which statistics reveal is in a calamitous state.
“E. coli levels (in the water discharged by Hartbeesfontein) in the Rietvlei River were in the multiple millions in April 2023,” X said.
That water eventually joins the polluted Kaalspruit from Tembisa to form the Hennops River.
“Eight million parts E. coli per 100ml were measured in the Hennops last year, but that’s nothing compared to the 24 million in the Kaalspruit.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Total lack of accountability as South Africa’s rivers choke on waste
City of Tshwane MMC for Environment and Agricultural Management Ziyanda Zwane described a downstream disaster of epic proportions and municipal design.
“The Kaalspruit is heavily polluted as a result of the impact of mushrooming informal settlements in Tembisa, which falls under Ekurhuleni, and the invasion of the Kaalfontein wetland, which falls under City of Johannesburg,” Zwane said.
When asked for comment on the Kaalspruit having an E. coli reading of more than 55 million counts per 100ml – as per the 2021 South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) damning report – and five other pertinent questions, the Ekurhuleni municipality responded with a paragraph declaring that “there is inconvertible scientific evidence that the (Olifantsfontein WWTW) plant actually helps the (Hennops) River particularly on microbiological compliance, as the E. coli upstream of the plant is high”.
“I want to sh… myself,” was X’s response. “That is not a way to justify your own pollution.”
Zwane, from the City of Tshwane, said “unmanaged (population) growth” in neighbouring Ekurhuleni led to the river system being used as a mechanism for disposal of untreated effluent and municipal solid waste.
He added that illegal sand mining in both the Olifantspruit and the Kaalspruit led to “thousands of tons of river sand washing down, much of which gets deposited into the Centurion Lake, which serves as a de facto silt trap”.
X said: “Authorities have allowed upstream pollution from sewer plants and other harmful water uses to continue unchecked.”
X doubted whether the municipalities could undo the damage. “They probably are understaffed and underskilled and under-supported in some instances, compounded by lack of resources and the complete failure of local authorities.”
If the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) does grant Corobrik the licence to mine the coal at its brick factory, the existing state of the Rietvlei suggests there is little chance that the City of Tshwane has the requisite staff or skills to monitor potential pollution.
While the proposed Corobrik mine is situated in Tshwane, Zwane emphasised that mining activities fell outside the city’s jurisdiction. He said the city had “raised concerns about Corobrik’s application and will appeal any decision that compromises the environment”.
Liefferink said Corobrik had to manage its mine as per its environmental management plan commitments and not pollute, “so that if pollution occurs, the law will follow its course”.
“Unfortunately everything in SA doesn’t always work as it should and any proper process could be ignored or denied or corrupted, such as the damage caused by mismanaged treatment works, and the Department of Water and Sanitation’s lack of action due to corporate misgovernance,” X said.
While concerns have been raised about corporate responsibility and municipal capacity – and taking into consideration that the City of Tshwane was castigated by the SAHRC for the barely functioning state of a number of its WWTWs – Zwane said Tshwane was committed to a more sustainable and ecologically responsible future.
Whether a “sustainable future” is in the pipeline for the Rietvlei environment seems to be up in the air, with Corobrik directing questions to consultants Licebo Environmental and Mining (Pty) Ltd.
Licebo environmental scientist Johny Mafego would only confirm that “the final basic assessment report (BAR) and environmental management programme (EMPr) was submitted to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) on the 12th of October 2023”, in turn directing Daily Maverick to the DMRE for comment.
However, repeated questions put to the DMRE have been unanswered, which some would link to a state of paralysis in the department.
The preservation and restoration of environmental and public health in a large chunk of the country’s financial heartland, meanwhile, awaits the DMRE’s decisive action and collaborative effort.
“Don’t forget, 20% of Tshwane’s drinking water is extracted from Rietvlei dam,” Johnston said. DM