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Who profits from blasting away water resources and valuable ecosystems?

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Another true horror story for water and the environment: open cast mineral sand mining. In very basic terms, this form of mining uses huge water cannons to send highly pressurized water to convert the soil to a slurry. This is then sent to a processing plant to separate valuable minerals, with waste going to pit refill, slimes dam sites and the recycle system at the plant. Alongside the valuable minerals, the process produces a sterilized mining area and abhorrent slimes dams.

Over the past 12-15 years, American company Tronox (previously Exxaro) has run a sand mining operation at 'Hillendale' near Richard's Bay on the north coast of KwaZulu Natal, and built and run a smelter worth R$1 billion in the nearby inland town of Empangeni. It invested in the smelter with the now stated intention to follow its mining of Hillendale in another area at 'Fairbreeze'. But during the recession Exxaro was going to close Hillendale and ship in feedstock for the smelter from elsewhere.

Tronox created havoc in Hillendale. Referred to as having an already "atrocious environmental record" and a "history of unmet environmental obligations," Tronox'soperations in this area led to shifting earth that cracked homes, dust storms, and an unknown level of groundwater pollution. The company has completed extraction but has not held to its deal to rehabilitate land. According to one observer, it looks like a "huge red sore in the midst of greenery."

Now that Hillendale is exhausted, Tronox is ready to mine Fairbreeze, a pristine area near Mtunzini, which is referred to as an "eco-showpiece" with miles of unspoilt coastline. Mtunzini turns over R$23 million annually in tourism, with 22 bed and breakfasts and 12 restaurants. Tronox's operations for Fairbreeze will be about four times the scale of Hillendale, running 24 hours a day, 100 metres from the nearest house. It will send waste to two slimes dams, with walls up to 37 metres high -- the height of a 10-story building -- and 4.5 x 1.5 kms in size. It will obliterate four wetlands and damage two.

Fairbreeze operations will require 2.2 million litres of water in the line at any one time to meet the need for nearly 50 million litres of water per day. And the process will certainly pollute and foul water downstream. Tronox has not assessed alternative treatment methods including dewatered tailings. One South African patented process was developed to minimize or eliminate slimes dams, to avoid the negative impacts on the local populations evidenced in the Klerksdorp/Welkom gold processes. Their systems can also recover about 90 per cent of the process water, reducing the overall water requirement by about 30 per cent of what is planned now.

The non-profit Mtunzini Conservancy has repeatedly raised one fundamental issue over the years: Tronox was never required to undertake a full scoping report and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the mine. In 2012 the Conservancy appealed for an urgent interdict to halt pre-mining operations at Fairbreeze. Held at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban, the Conservancy lost the application with costs. What seemed to be decisive was that six amakhosi (traditional chiefs), who claim to represent 45,000 people, of which at least 65 per cent are unemployed, supported Tronox.

Members of the Conservancy are being treated as uptight tree-huggers who have their heads in the sand about development that will help poor people. In an article entitled "Property Consultant Infuriating Mtunzini," developers refer to the Conservancy as "enclave environmentalism" that is "isolationalist and anti-growth" in an area that has not reached its "development potential." Yet the Conservancy supports a proposed mixed development project in the village that could bring investment of over R1-billion into Mtunzini and create sustainable jobs.

Tronox has ignited South African divisions between largely middle-class whites that own houses in the town and the neighbouring poor, black rural community. It seems that the company and its business and political cronies have succeeded with a divide and rule strategy. Why is there no other local opposition? According to the Mail and Guardian, the six amakhosi that rule the traditional authority surrounding Tronox's mining operations could choose from a host of contracts servicing the various sectors of the mining operation, including security, laundry, cleaning and scaffolding. InkosiMthembu said "We don't tender. We were told to choose contracts with low risk. We are also given specific contracts and asked to divide them among the amakhosi. Tronox has also bought the six amakhosi a farm. For our contracts, Tronox also provided all the equipment necessary to run the businesses."

Reportedly the amakhosi explain their constituents are happy with the plans as they want jobs and they "claim the mine will bring real employment opportunities and lift countless people out of poverty." Of course in an area with 35 per cent unemployment (Statistics South Africa 2011 census), people are desperate for jobs and when this mining is discussed with local people, they are led to believe that it will create many community jobs. Experience across South Africa, and in the developing world, show that if jobs are created, they are construction jobs that are very short term, not permanent and often without "decent" pay. One report states:

'That the mine has economic benefits for some people is unquestioned: in summary, the protection of about 700 jobs, 80 new jobs, which are temporary, as in limited to the life of mine, and a relatively short-term boost to the technical manufacturing/service sector. The desperate need for sustainable jobs that pay a living wage in circumstances of decent work is not in debate: whether supplying them through an essentially temporary and profoundly damaging method such as the proposed mine is the best option for the people, the area or the country is in question." (comment by J Stacey as part of the Mtunzini Conservancy's response to the IWUL Application, Annexure A)

It is possible that the company would also leave behind infrastructure needed for its operations: a newly built 88kV power line with a distribution transformer dedicated to Mtunzini and a 33km water pipeline from Hillendale to Fairbreeze that could, in the long run, provide water security for the village and its rural surroundings. There have been efforts over the last seven years to find funding, which some estimate to be in the region of R$100 million, for a sewer system to stop the raw sewerage now being pumped daily into the nature reserve. There have been unconfirmed rumours about a possible Tronox contribution.

This appears meagre relative to the estimated net profit of more than R$1 billion a year from the site.

Will mining at Fairbreeze go ahead? In terms of approvals, Tronox has a mining license from the Department of Mineral Resources. The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs has authorised all but one area via the curtailed basic assessment -- instead of a full Environmental Impact Assessment. 'Mine body D' was not approved because of its impact on an undisturbed dune forest along the coast and wetlands. Of course the approval for one part is often granted, and then slips into the full thing.To fight this, the Mtunzini Conservancy with six other organisations has appealed the authorisation granted in terms of the National Environmental Management Act. They hope that the MEC will ask Tronox to conduct the full process as befits a mine of this magnitude so that the current uncertainty and risk can be better and more fully addressed.

Tronox still needs to obtain the required water use licenses from DWAfor the massive slimes dams that will impact on wetlands and for the supply of raw water to the mine, in an area experiencing water scarcity and problems delivering to poor rural people. One analysis of the application document reviewed, point after point related to the impact on the current ground and surface water, responding repeatedly that 'The lack of certainty and specificity is inadequate for the granting of an authorisation." Moreover a hydrologist who reviewed the mining company's surface and groundwater assessments for the Conservancy, reports that it appeared to be a rushed job and that their modelling was out by at least 2 metres, which may lead to flooding in the nature reserve. The Mtunzini Conservancy has commented on the two applications, and the process also allows for appeals.

This is yet another case of asking whether the South African government is willing to blast away its water and other natural resources in the interest of private profit.

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