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VIEWPOINT: Coal Mining Cleans Up

Open-cast coalmines are ugly, as I saw for myself when recently viewing a client’s massive open-cast mine in Mpumalanga. Sprawling over several hectares, the scene was as apocalyptic as I had imagined. Four steaming pits sliced deep into the earth fed a relentless stream of mammoth tipper trucks ferrying their black cargo to washing plants. Workers noisily drilled holes for the explosives that would pulverise more tons of virgin coal face. Surrounding the pits were towering mounds of rock waste and top soil torn away to get at the coal seam.

Driving from the pits atop coal dust black roads, the metal towers and buttresses of processing plants dominated the skyline. Yet, across to the north, green fields of young maize stretched over the horizon – stark evidence of what this blighted land once was.

Fast forward to an ex-colliery some 50 km away. In the shadow of the giant Kusile power station still under construction, the coal miner’s environment manager and I overlook a green slope meandering down to a wetland and small dam. Young trees sprout up along the banks and bird life is aplenty.

He says: “The coal ran out and we started rehabilitating three years ago. All this grass here is ‘teff’ that we planted. It’s a hardy pioneer species that prepares the soil for a later wave of more diverse and natural vegetation.

“When starting a coalmine, it is vital to strip and store the topsoil carefully, it contains the nutrients that allow rehabilitating to previous agricultural uses.”

We walk around and the environmentalist points out where invader blackwattle trees had been removed and clumps of the poisonous Datura stramonium (stinkblaar) weeds will be stripped out. Piles of cowpats and hoof prints scattered about bring a smile to his face: “The neighbour’s cattle graze here. This is really good – their dung brings nutrients and hooves open up the soil.”

Kusile and the apocalyptic open-cast mine that will fuel its mammoth furnaces. A rural meadow returning to life. Cause and effect.

Miners often get rightly blamed for the environmental damage they do, especially those that cut corners. A recent study concludes that the agricultural land taken up by mining threatens our national food security. But our South African reality is that mining is a cornerstone of our economy and coal will power much of our energy needs for decades to come.

The environmentalist concludes: “We have overspent our rehabilitation budget by several million and still need to put in more over the next two years. Fortunately the company – unlike so many others – intends doing the rehabilitation properly.”

Yes, miners can return their properties in pristine condition – and we must be vigilant that they do exactly that. ❐

Author: Clive Lotter is an integrated reporting consultant and writer of annual reports