This is what it looks like when unregulated, illegal mining meets governance failure – a fire in a coal mine that has been burning for weeks, leaving nearby communities choking in the fumes. Perhaps most worryingly, nobody knows the extent to which fires may be burning underground.
What do noxious fumes, underserved communities, criminal coal mining rackets, governance failures and one of the largest corporate thermal coal producers and exporters in South Africa have in common?
Usually not much, but just a few kilometres outside Emalahleni in Mpumalanga they come together in an acrid confluence said to sting the noses and eyes of children, with plumes of smoke visible for many kilometres.
Emalahleni, literally “The place of coal”, is said to house the largest coal reserves in South Africa, with the greatest concentration of underground and open-cast mines in the country. For a number of complex reasons, some have chosen to benefit from this rich mineral endowment, outside of the prescripts of the law.
Now one of these mines, the Khwezela Colliery, which is owned by Thungela Resources, and is being mined illegally is on fire wth no real plan in place to extinguish it. According to Thungela’s website, “The Khwezela Colliery is an open-cast thermal coal mine located about 120km east of Johannesburg and approximately 22km southwest of Emalahleni. The colliery consists of two distinct open-cast operations, Khwezela North and Khwezela South. Current mining operations are focused on the Navigation area in Khwezela North.”
When Our Burning Planet visited the vicinity of the illegal mining columns of smoke from underground fires rose in to the air. There were no emergency services or firefighters on scene.
James Lorimer, a Democratic Alliance (DA) member of Parliament and a member of the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy, in a statement on Wednesday, called on President Cyril Ramaphosa “to proclaim an investigation by the SIU [Special Investigating Unit] into illegal coal mining in the Emalahleni Municipality”.
In his statement, Lorimer said: “An area near Duvha Park is riddled with pits dug by illegal coal miners, scattered with abandoned or deserted mining machines, and blanketed by the smoke and fumes of burning coal fires that are running out of control.
“Despite this having been a problem for months, the SAPS [SA Police Service] has failed to take effective action, the local municipality has ignored it, the owner of the mining right has blocked action and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) has taken no discernable action.”
With an ear to the ground and an eye to the sky before the publication of Lorimer’s statement, Our Burning Planet’s investigation drew similar conclusions and yet one more: nobody knows the extent to which the fires may be burning underground.
Marking the 100th day of her tenure as executive mayor of Emalahleni, Cornelia Nkalitshana held a press briefing on Wednesday. A recent report in City Press noted that in addition to the Speaker of the municipal council, Nkalitshana has been mentioned in a recording that alleges her participation in the large-scale illegal coal mining and corruption that bedevils the province.
Our Burning Planet asked the mayor to provide more details and information as to the causes, impacts and status of the fires, and her involvement with the criminal elements that are alleged to have started them.
“As an executive mayor, when I was notified by the communities of the activities happening there, it didn’t take my office [more than] two hours to mobilise on site. I had called all my directors, my managers to go and check and assess the situation.
“We’ve called in a disaster, we’ve called in, I think, environmentalists to go and check the fire there. When we arrived there, we found that the whole situation was beyond our control and as a municipality, we did not have the capacity to deal with the issue at the time,” said Nkalitshana.
“We then requested intervention from the DMRE [Department of Mineral Resources and Energy], from the minister of energy, we requested from the province and from the district and fortunately they mobilised within 24 hours.”
The mayor continued: “Thungela as well, on the very same day we had a meeting with them. We tried to calm the situation on the very same day. Then we had meetings subsequent to the event; the problem, we found out, was that the people that are mobilising there for illegal mining. It’s not only one group, there’s a lot of groups … as a municipality, we had to call in the SAPS to come in, with an intervention from the national police to come in. There is a unit that has been formed to close this illegal mining, that is the unit that has assisted the municipality.
“Currently, the fire has been distinguished [sic] and we are just waiting for DMRE to do the assessment, but Thungela is there on a daily basis. Even now they are there to arrest the situation… I can safely say that the community of Emalahleni, currently, they are safe and in terms of the emission, Thungela and DMRE are on top of the situation in terms of making sure the air is at an acceptable standard.”
Answering a follow-up question, Nkalitshana said the fire was not completely out and “there is still a little bit of smoke that is coming out of there and it’s [a] work in progress”.
She said the police were also on the scene.
“Before even this whole thing sparked, DMRE and Thungela were there to arrest the situation, but unfortunately, illegal miners shot at them [and] they went away.”
Our Burning Planet tried to contact Gwede Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources and energy, but was unable to reach him. Questions sent to the ministerial and departmental spokespersons went unanswered at the time of writing, as did calls and emails to the local DMRE office.
The mayor made a plea to community members to work with local authorities, saying: “It’s not the fumes that are going to kill us. We are not even sure the extent of the coal that has been burning for more than two weeks underground.”
Responding to allegations that she is linked to the criminal elements that operate illegal mines in the area, Nkalitshana said: “I’m not sure why my name was associated with that illegal mining. I can safely say I don’t have any interest in terms of mining. I don’t have a company that is linked with mining. Unfortunately, stories were made up.”
A community leader and politician in the Tasbet Park area close to the mine spoke to Our Burning Planet on the condition of anonymity.
“The smoke, the fires are hurting us a lot… It’s been two months now. So, the children, they are coughing, the adults are coughing. We’ve tried to engage with the municipality, but no one gave us answers. So I don’t know where must we run now because our government is letting us down now. We noticed actually last month [how bad the coughing had become]… It’s bad.”
‘My eyes were red’
Tiwny Honwani and Thabisile Moera are two sprightly women who stay near the mine. They decried the state of governance and expressed concern about the health impacts of the fires.
Stretched out near a coal stove for heat, Moera said: “My eyes were red and painful last week, and not only mine… Last week, there was this bad smell and I asked one of these guys [an illegal miner] what was happening outside and they said there was a poison they were busy with, trying to stop the fire, but they couldn’t so they used this other poison. We couldn’t even go outside… we don’t know what was smelling outside.”
“It’s very dangerous. We are very afraid… we are staying in the RDP [housing]; there’s nothing we can do but, hey, it’s very bad,” said Honwani.
“Even [the] municipality doesn’t have a care about us,” said Moera. “When they blast, our houses shake, the children even are afraid and run inside. There is no warning, there is no alert. Nothing. Just blasting.”
Honwani alleged: “Thungela knows what’s happening because Thungela is next to this illegal mining. Thungela security is this side, they see these people and they see these machines but they just shut up.”
Moera jumped in and added: “Before the illegal mining, when we go to fetch wood there, the security of Thungela they used to stop us [and] said, ‘This is a dangerous place, don’t fetch wood here’, but now why can’t Thungela stop illegal mining? This means Thungela and those people are working together.”
Mpumi Sithole, the executive head of corporate affairs at Thungela, told Our Burning Planet: “Thungela can confirm that the incident took place at the Northwest pit which is part of the Bokgoni/Kleinkopje complex at Khwezela. Mining at this site ceased over 20 years ago due to the growth of Witbank, the residential area, and its proximity to the pit.
“Illegal mining and blasting activities have been taking place in the area and have resulted in spontaneous combustion and the development of sinkholes. Smoke and hazardous fumes arising from spontaneous combustion pose a health risk to surrounding communities and the environment.”
Asked what actions were being taken by Thungela to arrest the situation, Sithole said: “In collaboration with the local authorities, including the executive mayor’s office and the disaster management team of the Emalahleni Local Municipality, we have developed a management plan to mitigate negative impacts of illegal mining on the community and the environment.
“We have reported the illegal mining activities to the South African Police Service and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy due to the negative impacts. We have also taken legal action and subsequently obtained a court order against illegal miners. As a result, their equipment has been impounded by the SAPS.
“In addition, as Thungela we have deployed additional protection services personnel to maintain 24-hour visibility. We will continue collaborating with local authorities and law enforcement agencies to minimise illegal mining.”
With allegations that illegal mining is increasingly organised, violent and linked to high-profile political actors, only time will tell if collaborations of the sort undertaken by Thungela will bear fruit. In the meantime, people like Tiwny Honwani and Thabisile Moera will continue to suffer the effects. DM/OB