A team of South African scientists and environmental experts recently joined Protect The West Coast (PTWC) on a first-of-its-kind visit to Trans Hex mining sites near the Olifants River Estuary on the Cape West Coast.
The mission, conducted in late October, was part of a court-ordered oversight programme that stems from the recent out-of-court settlement between Trans Hex and PTWC, the Doringbaai and Olifants small-scale fishing communities, and two community members.
Considered a major victory for PTWC and the future of the Olifants area, the settlement prevents Trans Hex mining in critical areas in and around the estuary. Apart from a list of other requirements, the agreement also mandates up to four inspections per year of Trans Hex mining sites by scientists and other experts representing PTWC and the other parties.
Patrick Forbes, head of the PTWC legal team, said: “The primary aim of the visit was to find a level of oversight over mining activities, which is, in PTWC’s opinion, pretty woeful, given that this duty rests with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. Such site visits are a crucial tool to ensure that, in this case, Trans Hex are complying with their legal obligations.”
“A main focus was to consider the impact of mining activities on the Olifants River estuary, given its critical importance as an estuary for the country and the province, and the hard-fought win for a no-go mining area around the estuary itself,” Forbes said.
The attendees included Simon Bundy, a coastal ecology expert from Kwa-Zulu Natal; Associate Professor Frank Eckardt, Head of the Environmental & Geographical Science Department University of Cape Town (UCT); Dr Richard Hill, environmental assessment and management expert; and Prof Koos Schoonees, Transnet National Port Authority Chair: Port and Coastal Engineering, at Stellenbosch University.
The visitors also included West Coast veterans Dr Peter Carrick, a pre-eminent plant ecology, indigenous plant species and Namaqualand rehabilitation expert; and Merle Sowman (UCT), a noted ecological conservation academic Professor Emeritus, and long-time West Coast activist; as well as PTWC’s Rona van der Merwe and Forbes.
The scientific team was selected for expertise in coastal sediment dynamics in the marine and terrestrial environments; rehabilitation and restoration specifically relating to the sensitive West Coast environment; as well as knowledge of environmental assessment processes and the resources of small-scale fisheries on the West Coast.
While the team could not get to some sites due to an alleged issue around permissions from another mining company Mineral Sand Resources working the same area that prohibited access, the trip was still deemed a success. They gained a great deal of new knowledge, particularly around how important proper rehabilitation is to mined areas that are part of a biodiverse land with vulnerable ecological status.
“There is enormous benefit to show a presence on the ground,” said Forbes, who pointed out two further benefits of the trip. One was to put Trans Hex and other mining companies in the spotlight by collecting evidence on their activities to make them see how seriously PTWC takes its mandate to ensure they comply with the law. The other benefit was to obtain solid scientific data to support a larger no-go area at the Olifants River estuary, and thus ensure the implementation of proper mitigation measures where required.
“It’s a massive privilege to do our bit for the West Coast and the communities who call it home,” said Forbes. “We will not stop. Mining companies up there have been put on notice. It is no longer business as usual. The benefits they promise better start materialising. Their obligations for rehabilitation and remediation must be fulfilled. There is a better way, and we intend to make sure it happens.”