On a remote stretch of South Africa’s west coast, two major diamond-mining companies, Alexkor and West Coast Resources (WCR), have been using a controversial and potentially highly destructive form of shoreline mining. This apparent violation of environmental laws and regulations has exposed major shortcomings in South Africa’s overarching mining legislation. By Micah Reddy for AMABHUNGANE.
There are wide-ranging concerns about the environmental impacts of “coffer dam mining” on the 330km Northern Cape coastline, where state-owned Alexkor and West Coast Resources – in which billionaire businessman Christo Wiese holds a significant stake – make up a duopoly.
Both mines have large-scale operations.
Coffer dam mining is not new to this coast, but expansion has been taking place since at least 2016, and the two mining companies appear to have ignored regulatory processes and mined the shore illegally.
According to a February 2017 report commissioned by Conservation South Africa: “it appears that this activity is illegal on several counts, primarily as a due and proper environmental assessment of the impacts of this process has never been engaged, nor have the implications for the marine environment been fully understood.”
The mining method entails cordoning off large tracts of the shoreline with dam walls made of earth or debris that jut out from the beach. The enclosed seawater within the dam walls is then dredged so that the seabed can be excavated for diamonds using heavy machinery.
This alarms environmentalists. They say that mining of this kind on such a large scale, especially when rocks and debris are used for the dam walls, remains largely untested and could result in long-term and potentially irreparable damage to an ecologically sensitive coastline.
In terms of the law governing beach mining, a mining company is supposed to go through a rigorous application process before environmental authorisation and mining rights are granted and new mining activity can commence.
Among other things, companies need to submit an environmental impact assessment and an environmental management programme, laying out the company’s plans for mitigating harm to the environment and for environmental rehabilitation to mined areas.
This process demands input from a range of experts, including botanists and marine biologists, as well as public consultations.
Only after the department of mineral resources determines that mining activity will not result in unacceptable pollution and environmental degradation, and once environmental plans have been approved, can the department issue an environmental authorisation for new mining activity to begin.
Any significant deviations in the proposed mining activity require that the environmental plans are amended and approved by the DMR.
But both WCR and Alexkor appear to have short-circuited these procedures.
‘No due process’
In 2014 WCR inherited its Namaqualand mining rights for areas extending north and south from Hondeklip Bay from De Beers, which sold the land to WCR’s parent company, Trans Hex.
However, the mining rights do not appear to have provided for coffer dam mining.
To rectify this, WCR applied for enhanced mining rights in December 2016. But by that time, it had already started building coffer dams.
A scan of Google Earth images from earlier that year reveals at least three coffer dams already under construction in the area north and south of Hondeklip Bay on concessions controlled by WCR.
Yet it was not until the following April that WCR was granted environmental authorisation by the DMR to proceed with the construction of coffer dams.
Shortly after the decision to grant authorisation was made, it was taken on appeal by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC).
One of the LRC lawyers involved in the appeal, Lucien Limacher, said that any substantial changes, expansion or new mining activity would require amendments to the company’s environmental management programme or authorisation from the DMR before the proposed mining could go ahead.
He alleged that WCR was circumventing due process and attempting to retroactively apply environmental authorisation to new mining activity.
AmaBhungane consulted environmental lawyers who were not involved in the coffer dam case. They pointed out that the National Environmental Management Act provides for a company to rectify unauthorised mining activity, with the possibility of continuing it lawfully.
However, WCR did not take this route, known as a section 24G application. Effectively, that would have been an admission of guilt, exposing the company to a fine of up to R5-million and an order to halt further coffer dam mining.
In response to detailed questions, WCR said that its “beach-mining activities up to the low-water mark… complied fully with pre-existing and approved Environmental Management Programmes (EMPs). Approval for these EMPs was issued to De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd on 3 July 2013”.
By definition, coffer dams extend beyond the low water mark.
The company did not respond to a follow-up question in which it was presented with satellite images from early 2016 of coffer dam construction extending over 100m into the surf – well beyond the low-water mark.
Legally, in terms of the new ‘One Environment’ system, the DMR is the authority that grants environmental authorisation, but appeals are taken to the department of environment. The DEA rejected the LRC’s appeal.
There is now a 180-day window to take the matter to court.
Meanwhile, environmentalists and local activists point to what they say are even worse environmental abuses taking place further north along a stretch of coast controlled by Alexkor.
That company’s coastal mining area runs from Alexander Bay on the Namibian border south to the area around Port Nolloth, and in 2016 its coffer dam operations appeared to be far more advanced than WCR’s.
Of greatest concern to environmentalists is a single compound structure consisting of about six interlinked coffer dams, which in 2016 stretched for nearly half a kilometre along the coast and about 250m out to sea.
Satellite images show ongoing addition to the structure, just south of the Orange River mouth, so it is possible that more dams have been added since then.
Alexkor claims that the dams it is currently building are legal, citing an outdated environmental plan approved more than two decades ago. The relevant legislation has changed significantly since then.
AmaBhungane has seen a copy of the 1995 plan, which contains a brief reference to coffer dam mining.
It notes that certain areas are demarcated for coffer dam mining – and flags the potentially severe environmental impacts.
Though the use of sand coffer dams is not without risks, the use of large rocks and debris, which is often more cost-effective than using only sand and requires less maintenance, is far more harmful and can cause irreparable damage.
“Under no circumstances should gravel, cobbles or boulders be used in coffer dam mining operations, as, for example, was used in Block 60,” reads the 1995 plan.
Block 60 is in the region of the Orange River – the area in which Alexkor’s massive coffer dam development lies.
Despite being expressly prohibited from using rocks and debris for its dams, satellite imagery and photographs show that Alexkor and its contractors continue to dump vast quantities of rubble on to the shore more than 20 years later.
The recent additions to Block 60 are made primarily of rock, which appears to have been brought in from inland quarries and dumping sites a short distance away.
In response to questions about the use of rocks and rubble, the DMR contradicted environmental studies by claiming that “coffer dams are usually in operation for up to three years, after which the berm is removed and the sea naturally reclaims the mined area”.
An environmentalist with in-depth knowledge of the Northern Cape coast pointed out that there are virtually no requirements for Alexkor contractors to rehabilitate the areas they mine, as satellite images of disused coffer dam mines would suggest.
Facing difficult questions about its environmental compliance, Alexkor, much like WCR, is now trying to bring its environmental plans in line with the operations it has already been carrying out.
To do this, the company has…