There are wide-ranging concerns about the environmental impacts of “coffer dam mining” on the 330km Northern Cape coastline, where state-owned Alexkor and West Coast Resources – in which billionaire businessman Christo Wiese holds a significant stake – make up a duopoly.
Both mines have large-scale operations.
Coffer dam mining is not new to this coast, but expansion has been taking place since at least 2016, and the two mining companies appear to have ignored regulatory processes and mined the shore illegally.
According to a February 2017 report commissioned by Conservation South Africa: “it appears that this activity is illegal on several counts, primarily as a due and proper environmental assessment of the impacts of this process has never been engaged, nor have the implications for the marine environment been fully understood.”
The mining method entails cordoning off large tracts of the shoreline with dam walls made of earth or debris that jut out from the beach. The enclosed seawater within the dam walls is then dredged so that the seabed can be excavated for diamonds using heavy machinery.
This alarms environmentalists.
They say that mining of this kind on such a large scale, especially when rocks and debris are used for the dam walls, remains largely untested and could result in long-term and potentially irreparable damage to an ecologically sensitive coastline.
In terms of the law governing beach mining, a mining company is supposed to go through a rigorous application process before environmental authorisation and mining rights are granted and new mining activity can commence.
Among other things, companies need to submit an environmental impact assessment and an environmental management programme, laying out the company’s plans for mitigating harm to the environment and for environmental rehabilitation to mined areas.
This process demands input from a range of experts, including botanists and marine biologists, as well as public consultations.
Only after the department of mineral resources determines that mining activity will not result in unacceptable pollution and environmental degradation, and once environmental plans have been approved, can the department issue an environmental authorisation for new mining activity to begin.
Any significant deviations in the proposed mining activity require that the environmental plans are amended and approved by the DMR.
But both WCR and Alexkor appear to have short-circuited these procedures.
In 2014 WCR inherited its Namaqualand mining rights for areas extending north and south from Hondeklip Bay from De Beers, which sold the land to WCR’s parent company, Trans Hex.
However, the mining rights do not appear to have provided for coffer dam mining.
To rectify this, WCR applied for enhanced mining rights in December 2016. But by that time, it had already started building coffer dams.
A scan of Google Earth images from earlier that year reveals at least three coffer dams already under construction in the area north and south of Hondeklip Bay on concessions controlled by WCR.
Yet it was not until the following April that WCR was granted environmental authorisation by the DMR to proceed with the construction of coffer dams.
Shortly after the decision to grant authorisation was made, it was taken on appeal by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC).
One of the LRC lawyers involved in the appeal, Lucien Limacher, said that any substantial changes, expansion or new mining activity would require amendments to the company’s environmental management programme or authorisation from the DMR before the proposed mining could go ahead.
He alleged that WCR was circumventing due process and attempting to retroactively apply environmental authorisation to new mining activity.
AmaBhungane consulted environmental lawyers who were not involved in the coffer dam case. They pointed out that the National Environmental Management Act provides for a company to rectify unauthorised mining activity, with the possibility of continuing it lawfully.
However, WCR did not take this route, known as a section 24G application.
Effectively, that would have been an admission of guilt, exposing the company to a fine of up to R5-million and an order to halt further coffer dam mining.
In response to detailed questions, WCR said that its “beach-mining activities up to the low-water mark… complied fully with pre-existing and approved Environmental Management Programmes (EMPs). Approval for these EMPs was issued to De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd on 3 July 2013”.
By definition, coffer dams extend beyond the low water mark.
Before and after pics of Alexkor’s massive coffer dam complex out of Alexander Bay. The first image is from 2013 and the second image is from 2016 (Google Earth).
The company did not respond to a follow-up question in which it was presented with satellite images from early 2016 of coffer dam construction extending over 100m into the surf – well beyond the low-water mark.
Legally, in terms of the new ‘One Environment’ system, the DMR is the authority that grants environmental authorisation, but appeals are taken to the department of environment. The DEA rejected the LRC’s appeal.
There is now a 180-day window to take the matter to court.
Meanwhile, environmentalists and local activists point to what they say are even worse environmental abuses taking place further north along a stretch of coast controlled by Alexkor.
That company’s coastal mining area runs from Alexander Bay on the Namibian border south to the area around Port Nolloth, and in 2016 its coffer dam operations appeared to be far more advanced than WCR’s.
Of greatest concern to environmentalists is a single compound structure consisting of about six interlinked coffer dams, which in 2016 stretched for nearly half a kilometre along the coast and about 250m out to sea.
Satellite images show ongoing addition to the structure, just south of the Orange River mouth, so it is possible that more dams have been added since then.
Alexkor claims that the dams it is currently building are legal, citing an outdated environmental plan approved more than two decades ago. The relevant legislation has changed significantly since then.
AmaBhungane has seen a copy of the 1995 plan, which contains a brief reference to coffer dam mining.
It notes that certain areas are demarcated for coffer dam mining – and flags the potentially severe environmental impacts.
Though the use of sand coffer dams is not without risks, the use of large rocks and debris, which is often more cost-effective than using only sand and requires less maintenance, is far more harmful and can cause irreparable damage.
“Under no circumstances should gravel, cobbles or boulders be used in coffer dam mining operations, as, for example, was used in Block 60,” reads the 1995 plan.
Block 60 is in the region of the Orange River – the area in which Alexkor’s massive coffer dam development lies.
Despite being expressly prohibited from using rocks and debris for its dams, satellite imagery and photographs show that Alexkor and its contractors continue to dump vast quantities of rubble on to the shore more than 20 years later.
The recent additions to Block 60 are made primarily of rock, which appears to have been brought in from inland quarries and dumping sites a short distance away.
In response to questions about the use of rocks and rubble, the DMR contradicted environmental studies by claiming that “coffer dams are usually in operation for up to three years, after which the berm is removed and the sea naturally reclaims the mined area”.
An environmentalist with in-depth knowledge of the Northern Cape coast pointed out that there are virtually no requirements for Alexkor contractors to rehabilitate the areas they mine, as satellite images of disused coffer dam mines would suggest.
Facing difficult questions about its environmental compliance, Alexkor, much like WCR, is now trying to bring its environmental plans in line with the operations it has already been carrying out.
To do this, the company has had to apply for amendments to its environmental management programme and commission a series of expert reports, which again warn of the high impact of coffer dams, especially when rock is used.
Environmentalists fear that the Block 60 operations will expand and pose a greater threat to the nearby Orange river estuary and wetlands. The Conservation South Africa report notes that this is a “designated Ramsar site, one of only 18 global transboundary Ramsar sites”.
These are sites demarcated in terms of an international Unesco-held arrangement to manage wetland conservation.
The companies might have felt they could interpret the law loosely and push ahead with dams without much bother from regulators. As one environmental law expert pointed out, “in mining it is easier to plead for forgiveness than ask for permission”.
Part of the current problem is the role of the DEA, which, according to the Conservation South Africa report, is unable to effectively police big mining companies.
That mining companies have been allowed to jump the gun is “concerning”, the report says, because the provincial arm of the DEA “had been aware of these activities for at least two years and yet appears to have not pursued legal action on these activities”.
It is a sentiment echoed by many critics of the ‘one environmental system’.
Introduced in 2014 as an attempt to streamline mining applications, the new regime has stripped the DEA of much of its oversight role in authorising mining activity.
Though the DEA can comment on applications for environmental authorisation, the DMR is ultimately charged with granting authorisation to mines. The DEA becomes the final port of call tasked with handling appeals against DMR decisions.
Critics say the DMR’s role is conflicted because the department is situated within the economic cluster of government and has a mandate to encourage mining activity above all else. Environmental concerns are secondary.
“It is akin to are asking the fox to guard the hen house,” said the LRC’s Limacher.
The DEA has some jurisdiction in monitoring environmental compliance, but faces crippling challenges in doing so.
A DEA source, who spoke to amaBhungane on condition of anonymity, said that “the DEA’s hands are often tied”.
The source said that the mines are given a wide berth to operate as they see fit, while the provincial arm of the department is severely under-resourced, with only one compliance officer to monitor the entire stretch of coast.
According to the source, the department is often at the mercy of the mines, which have a habit of putting obstacles in the way of inspectors.
Historically, the mines have been allowed to tightly control access to mining property because of concerns around diamond smuggling.
They use this as reason to insist on using only their vehicles for site visits and will show inspectors “only what they want them to see”, said the source.
The confusing transition to a new environmental system makes the department’s role even harder. But the mining companies, conservationists say, saw an opportunity in the confusion to forge ahead with new mining activities.
In response to questions about compliance, the DEA appeared to downplay its role and suggest that its counterpart, the DMR, was primarily responsible.
“DMR issues environmental authorisations and waste management licences in terms of the environmental legislation as far as mining activities are concerned, and compliance monitoring and enforcement function in respect of these activities lie with the environmental mineral resources inspectors appointed by the DMR.”
The DMR responded vaguely that the mining companies were compliant with the law and that “inspections are routinely carried out and the companies are expected to submit performance assessments”.
In satellite images, the diamond mining coast resembles a moth-eaten strip of brown fabric. Industrial mining over generations has left giant scars in the earth and a patchwork of low-lying mine dumps, tailings dams and quarries, and a maze of criss-crossing service roads.
But the landscape conceals rich and extremely fragile ecosystems – something underscored by numerous environmental reports, some commissioned by the mines as part of their licence requirements.
These reports consistently warn of the massive environmental impacts of coffer dam mining.
This includes damage to dunes and beach vegetation by the removal of large volumes of sand, the disruption of natural sand movement, and the possibility of permanently altering delicate marine ecosystems.
The dams require ongoing maintenance and are constantly eroded by waves, which can result in excessive silting.
This, together with the dumping of foreign material, environmentalists say, could suffocate isolated bays and kelp beds, which offer sanctuaries and breeding grounds for a range of marine life.
This would have serious knock-on effects that could threaten fish, lobster and abalone populations, which sustain local communities.
Already, local communities have a bitter sense of there being little to show for the millions of carats of diamonds that have dug up from the earth and the seabed on this coast over the past century.
The Richtersveld and Namaqualand hinterlands that abut the coast are sparsely populated and economically depressed, with an unemployment rate said to massively exceed the national average.
In Hondeklip Bay, community activist Dawid Marcus has been vocal about the damage the mines are doing. So much so that WCR tried unsuccessfully to interdict him from protesting against the company.
Marcus said that the local fishermen are concerned that the mines will further restrict access to the coast, adding to the problem of dwindling crayfish and fish populations.
Local marine divers are also worried that their livelihoods are under threat from coffer dam mining.
The divers were historically the workhorses of Alexkor’s coastal diamond industry, contracted to use small boats and pumps to extract diamonds from the seabed.
But they fear that as highly mechanised coffer dam mining expands they will be squeezed out in favour of contractors with different skills and new machines.
Gavin Craythorne, a diamond diver who has worked the West Coast for two decades, said that apart from restricted access to areas demarcated for coffer dams, the dams themselves have a footprint that extends well beyond their physical structures.
He added that sand and other material becomes spread across a large area as the dam walls are eroded by waves.
This not only decreases visibility for divers but also smothers the seabed with layers of sediment, making it difficult for divers to get to the diamond-rich gravel below.
An independent environmentalist confirmed this, adding that the effects of large volumes of sediment could possibly be felt kilometres away from a mine.
But despite concerted opposition from environmentalists and local communities, mining companies appear determined to forge ahead with beach mining.
While inland deposits are increasingly mined out, the rich coastal deposits formed by ancient rivers offer a lucrative source of diamonds.
A recent specialist report that forms part of Alexkor’s application to expand mining activities, states: “Considering the number of mining targets identified for coffer dam operations … the extent of the impact can be deemed regional.”
The DMR backs coffer dam expansion, saying that the dams are “unlikely to cause irreversible or long-lasting adverse effects to any aspect of the coastal environment if satisfactorily mitigated”.
AmaBhungane has seen a 2014 discussion document by the Questco consultancy laying out plans for a proposed consolidation of diamond concessions on the West Coast.
The document lends credibility to rumours that Trans Hex is looking to buy out Alexkor, as the state-owned company seeks to move away from diamonds and into “strategic minerals”.
Trans Hex owns the largest share of WCR, in which the state also has a sizeable stake.
The plan would see Trans Hex gaining 100% of Alexkor’s land and marine assets.
It is what will happen to the marine assets that concerns the divers most. They fear that the consolidation of mining assets will result in an “absolute monopoly” in which coffer dam mining becomes the new norm.
AmaBhungane spoke to a boat skipper with decades of experience of diving for diamonds off the West Coast about the environmental ravages of coffer dam mining.
He works on contract for Alexkor and did not want to be named for fear of losing business with the company. It is a very real fear given widespread rumours that Alexkor is seeking to punish those who speak out against environmental abuses.
(AmaBhungane has seen what appear to be minutes of a meeting with Alexkor officials which mentions that “unnecessary whistle-blowing” should “not be tolerated”. The document could not be independently verified, however.)
The skipper told amaBhungane that “there are very few sea days when the weather is fine and we can take the diamond divers out, but these days it’s even harder because the sand from coffer dam mining makes the visibility very low”.
“The sand is killing the small organisms and kelp that are part of the food chain and are important for fishing, especially for crayfish. The fishermen often complain about it, especially in Alexander Bay.”
Dam walls made of sand require constant maintenance – more and more of it is used to bolster the walls as waves erode them. The eroded sand and fine particles can spread for hundreds of metres, sometimes kilometres, in thick, smothering plumes.
One environmental specialist familiar with the West Coast warned that rock walls used in some cases to “armour“ the walls can “permanently alter” the coastal environment.
It is not just the environmental impacts that cause alarm, however.
The area is a microcosm of the “resource curse“ – the idea that countries with an abundance of a particular natural resource become dependent on it and tend to have less democracy and lower levels of economic growth and development as a result.
Competition over resources has played out in the Richtersveld community, which has been riven by infighting in recent years.
In 2007 the Land Claims Court granted the community land and mining rights expropriated by the state during the colonial era. But hopes that this would bring economic development and meaningful redistribution were soon dashed.
In a 2014 article, amaBhungane reported on a feud that centred on the community-owned mining firm, the Richtersveld Mining Company.
Owned by a community trust made up of elected representatives, the RMC was supposed to be a vehicle to deliver growth and prosperity to the impoverished Richtersveld and the 2 700 registered members of the Richtersveld Sida Hub Communal Property Association.
However, after a new board took office at Alexkor in 2012, serious rifts began to emerge that ultimately led to legal action.
Deposed RMC office-bearers pointed fingers at Alexkor, accusing it of manipulating divisions in the community to regain control of mining rights it shared with the RMC.
Alexkor and its chairperson fired back, saying that the ex-officials had mismanaged the company and their bungling had cost them their jobs. They said that the push to remove the officials came from the community.
The dominance of a single commodity in the local economy has fuelled such conflicts – and coffer dam mining, it is feared, will entrench dependence on the mining industry.
A nascent abalone ranching industry, fishing and the artisanal diamond mining are all at stake. So, too, is tourism.
Community activists, environmentalists and other critics warn that if more of the coast is cordoned off for diamond mining, the opportunities for a more diverse and inclusive economy will increasingly be shut off.
“Coffer dam mining is smothering everything else,” said Gavin Craythorne, a marine diver who has worked these coasts for two decades.
“The organisms that live in those areas will be smothered and we’ll be left with an underwater desert
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