Johannesburg- The spill of dangerous toxins at the Zululand Anthracite Colliery (ZAC) coal mine located in the village of oKhukho near Ulundi, in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal, has again shone a light on the plight of rural communities who are at the mercy of mining companies.
Subsistence farmers in the area say that for decades they fought a losing war against coal mine operations, saying it affected their livestock and posed a danger to human life.
“Agriculture and small-scale farming are the backbone of many communities in this region. Our families are surviving. For several years we have called for the mine to find other modes of exploitation because it affected our livestock.
“The recent spill is just the tip of the iceberg. Our crops cannot grow properly because of the harmful toxins released by the mine,” lamented local farmer Buzani Mpanza.
A team of environmental inspectors from the National Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment was dispatched to the mining company last week to assess environmental damage following complaints from villagers.
About 1.5 million liters of liquid coal waste spilled into nearby waterways, including the Umfolozi river system, following the collapse of a sewage sludge dam at the coal mine.
Besides the threat to human life consuming river water, environmentalists were quick to warn that harmful acidic waste would have a serious impact on nature conservation. There are also concerns that the spill could affect the ecosystem of nearby Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve and the Isimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site.
Another subsistence farmer, Thulani Mkhwanazi, said nearby rivers had dried up due to mining activities.
“We don’t have taps and households now depend on drinking water provided by Zululand Municipality, which sometimes doesn’t come. Our fresh water source has become polluted,” Mkhwanazi said.
In the past, the coal mine, owned by the Menar Group, has been taken to task by the Ezemvelo KZN, a government conservation agency, for pollution and increased volume of water consumption.
The mine is currently in a legal tussle with the agency over the granting of a new water permit.
According to the mine’s environmental superintendent, Musawenkosi Buthelezi: “Community leaders were generally satisfied with the way the ZAC handled the incident, working with the host communities themselves, as well as with the competent authorities to ensure continued support for livelihoods and economic activities”.
He added that the coal mine was complying with guidelines from relevant regulatory authorities.
The mine pays annual rental fees to the Ingonyama Trust, which, according to respected researcher Professor Mary De Haas, has often marginalized communities when it comes to mining royalties.
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