SALDANHA BAY (miningweekly.com) – Emerging miner Kropz has warned that the West Coast Environmental Protection Association’s (WCEPA’s) application to have the water-use license (WUL) for Kropz’s Elandsfontein phosphate mine, near Saldanha Bay, in the Western Cape, suspended, would, if successful, cause “irreversible environmental damage”.
The R1.5-billion mine – a 70:30 joint venture (JV) between Kropz and money management firm African Rainbow Capital – has faced stiff opposition from environmental groups, including WCEPA, over concerns about the potential impact the mine will have on the environment.
The project is located on land adjacent to to the West Coast National Park, the Dunefield Heritage Site and 15 km from the Langebaan lagoon.
WCEPA has filed an urgent interdict in the Western Cape High Court against Kropz, Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation (DWS).
However, Kropz is opposing WCEPA’s application, stating that according to legal advice, a bid by WCEPA to have Elandsfontein’s WUL revoked has “no grounds”.
During a media visit to the mine on Wednesday, Kropz technical director Michelle Lawrence explained that, if over time, the mine were not able to continue to safely pump the water out of the Elandsfontein aquifer – at a cost of about R1-million a month – around its openpit and allow it to filter back into the aquifer in accordance with the mine’s dewatering system design, the pit would flood.
She noted that if dewatering stopped for an extended period, the pit would increase in size owing to erosion of its sidewalls by the water; the volume of water in the pit would increase significantly and the water quality would deteriorate, negatively impacting on groundwater.
Kropz’s groundwater specialist Dr Fanie Botha added that uncontrollable water loss from the enlarged pit, owing to evaporation, would be another consequence. He described WCEPA’s moves as “illogical”.
Kropz has invested about R6-million on groundwater studies and the development and peer review of the mine's groundwater model, which has informed the company's responsible management of the Elandsfontein aquifer’s water.
These studies have been independently reviewed by environmental consultants including SRK Consulting, GEOS Mining and the University of Western Cape Institute for Water Studies' Dr Jaco Nel.
Kropz says these studies found that all groundwater monitoring undertaken since Kropz started the dewatering and rechargings of the aquifer seven months back showed these actions were not having a negative impact on the aquifer.
The development of Elandsfontein started in 2009 and it has an estimated life-of-mine of 15 years. The mine is expected to produce about 1.35-million tons of phosphate a year at full production for the local market and export.
However, in August, Elandsfontein was placed on care and maintenance owing to low global phosphate prices and because the mine needed to reconfigure its processing plant.
Lawrence explained that reconfiguration was necessary owing to shallower, lower-grade phosphate having to be mined because of a delay in the mine receiving its WUL. This delay meant that groundwater levels could not be drawn down as planned to access the full orebody.
Lawrence told Mining Weekly Online that Kropz expected prices to improve during the course of the next six to nine months and was hopeful that the mine would restart operations during the third quarter of 2018.
About 1 000 people were employed for the construction phase of the project, while more than 450 people – 70% local – will be employed during the course of the mining operations.
WCEPA, which is represented by law firm Cullinan & Associates, said in a statement that it has opposed the Elandsfontein development from the outset owing to the "threat it poses to the ecosystems and livelihoods dependent on the Elandsfontein aquifer and Langebaan lagoon".
WCEPA treasurer Nicola Viljoen said WCEPA’s experts point out in its appeal to the Water Tribunal that Kropz has not established what the impacts will be of its ongoing abstraction and reinjection of aquifer water, and that there are good reasons for believing that the long-term impacts could be severe.
“Kropz’s current actions are unlawful, and if the pit floods and the walls begin to erode, Kropz has only itself to blame. Mining companies must obtain a number of licences before they begin mining (particularly in environmentally sensitive and water-scarce areas). The law prescribes an integrated authorisation process that can be followed to ensure that all the authorisations are consistent and are obtained before mining commences.
"Kropz chose not to follow an integrated process, abandoned its application for an environmental authorisation and recklessly started digging the pit before it had a water-use licence. Now it is conducting water-use activities unlawfully while its WUL is suspended by operation of law.
“It is surprising that Kropz considers evaporation of some water as serious harm when it is prepared to divert all the water it extracts from the aquifer to the municipality. The WCEPA made it quite clear that if a WUL were granted it would lodge an appeal which automatically suspends the WUL. Instead of waiting until the appeal and other foreseeable legal challenges had been resolved before commencing construction, Kropz chose a more reckless approach,” WCEPA stated.
Kropz has rejected all WCEPA's allegations and has stressed that all its findings were based on "hard science" and that it had received all the required permits for the mine.
Additionally, civic association Hopefield Community Forum and Hopefield farmer association member Jan Hanekom told Mining Weekly Online that most local community members supported the Elandsfontein project and that,"Elandsfontein represents a significant opportunity for job creation and economic enhancement of the region, particularly for the majority of the residents who comprise underprivileged black and coloured people."