Scientists join PTWC on historic trip to observe West Coast mining impacts.

A team of South African scientists and environmental experts brought together by Protect The West Coast recently travelled to observe mining sites near the Olifants River Estuary on the Cape West Coast as part of a court-ordered oversight programme. Photo by Patrick Forbes.

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 enlisted by 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 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.

However, they could not access some sites due to an alleged issue around permissions from another mining company Mineral Sand Resources working the same area that prohibited access.

“We are in this for the long game and, next time, we will ensure that any technicalities around access are ironed out well in advance,” said Forbes. “We have engaged with them to ensure that we get the appropriate legally-enforced access on the next site visit.” 

Despite the setback, the team gained a great deal from the trip.

“It was obviously fantastic to have the experts, some of whom supported the court proceedings, to experience first-hand the active mining activities, as well as the historical legacy of mining,” Forbes said. “The area had really good rains and Verloerenvlei was full and there were still flowers around. The general impression was that unregulated mining activities could have a devastating impact on these sensitive coastal areas and the estuary, which is a lifeline for communities.”

The team were able to further understand the impacts of different types of mining offshore, nearshore or on the beaches themselves. They discussed mitigation measures required to minimise these impacts, and the kind of rehabilitation required in the West Coast environment. 

They saw successful examples of proper rehabilitation, and where it had failed. As the first mission of its kind, certainly in this region, the trip also underlined the importance of “eyes on the ground” to ensure that the mining industry and government are monitored and held accountable. 

Even a cursory glance by a layperson can see the disruption caused by mining on farming. The team met a sheep farming family who have farmed here for eight generations. They must cope with the clank and dust from two active mining operations on their farm, with another prospecting application in the pipeline. The farmer reported a declining rate of productivity since the mining began.

Any sense of place, apart from the destruction, is fundamentally altered when you have massive mining trucks traversing the area throughout the day.

“There is enormous benefit to show a presence on the ground,” said Forbes, who pointed out two main 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.

The team will compile reports from the information they gather. These will be used to build an invaluable body of data for decision makers when deliberating over further mining applications on the West Coast, and provide support for public participation and comments on applications. 

“Ongoing monitoring of transgressions will continue at future site visits, and where necessary, taken up with relevant authorities and the mining companies,” said Forbes, who deemed the trip a resounding success and said PTWC is preparing to lead the next expedition to continue the monitoring work.

“We are already arranging dates for the next trip to keep the pressure on!” he said. 

Forbes also expressed gratitude to those who support PTWC with financial contributions, which were crucial for important initiatives such as this: “It is only with the support of the PTWC community that we can make this happen. There are a considerable number of skill sets needed, and an enormous amount of time and effort to coordinate this work.” 

“It’s a massive privilege to do our bit for the West Coast and the communities who call it home. 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.”

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