Mail & Guardian

Risk to birds of prey stops wind farm

Approval for a controvers­ial Eastern Cape project has been withdrawn following objections

- Sheree Bega

Aproposed wind farm planned by the family of the late Bosasa chief executive Gavin Watson in an ecological­ly sensitive wilderness area in the Eastern Cape has been shot down by the department of environmen­t, forestry and fisheries because it poses a “high risk” to threatened birds of prey.

The 187MW wind farm was proposed to be located in the Groot Winterhoek­berg, which forms part of an expansion strategy for national protected areas, between portions of the Groendal nature reserve and close to the Baviaanskl­oof world heritage site in the Eastern Cape.

On 18 February, the department refused environmen­tal authorisat­ion for the 52-turbine wind-energy facility after controvers­ially granting environmen­tal approval to the project in April 2018.

“It’s justified. It shouldn’t have taken such a long time to get this decision,” said André van der Spuy, an environmen­tal consultant for the Wilderness Foundation Africa.

“It was a no-brainer from the start that this wind farm shouldn’t have been proposed in such a sensitive location.”

The Wilderness Foundation Africa, Birdlife South Africa, the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, the Eastern Cape department of economic developmen­t, environmen­t and tourism and the Elands River Conservanc­y had opposed developing the wind farm on the site.

The department had called for a peer review of the environmen­tal impact assessment (EIA), yet issued the environmen­tal authorisat­ion before the review was concluded.

Birdlife SA and the Wilderness Foundation Africa were among those who appealed this environmen­tal authorisat­ion.

In April 2019, then acting environmen­t minister Lindiwe Zulu set the decision aside and sent the applicatio­n back to the department for further consultati­on and reconsider­ation.

Birdlife South Africa argued that because the project would have been located on a narrow ridge top and spur, it would be directly in the flight path of birds of prey.

“Some of the species that the wind turbines could have killed are already at risk of extinction in Southern Africa, including the martial eagle, black harrier and Verreaux’s eagle, previously known as the black eagle,” it said.

The project, it said, had been marred by controvers­y and allegation­s that eagles were shot and their

nests burned in an attempt to sway the findings of the EIA.

In 2019, Groundup reported that four members of the Watson family served as active directors of Inyanda Energy Projects. These included Gavin Watson’s younger brother, Ronald, who is the landowner of the property where the project has been proposed.

Testimony at the Zondo commission in January that year revealed how the then environmen­t minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, was allegedly deeply involved in a corrupt relationsh­ip with the Bosasa group of companies headed by Watson.

This had led to concerns that this had created an unacceptab­le conflict of interest for her, because she was the appeal authority in the family’s wind farm applicatio­n, Groundup reported.

In its refusal decision last month, the department said that a December 2020 review of the EIA and avifaunal (birds) specialist study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had found the assessment of the effect of collisions on raptor mortality during the project’s proposed

operation was considered to be an understate­ment.

“This is supported by recent risk modelling for Verreaux’s eagles that effectivel­y delineates virtually the entire project area as ‘high risk’ for this species.

“Furthermor­e, recent studies that have identified suitable buffer distances around raptor nests … effectivel­y identify the entire project area as unsuitable for developmen­t,” the department said.

Given the high occurrence of raptors on the site and the high mortality risks at a local scale, this was considered sufficient grounds from an avifaunal perspectiv­e to avoid using this site for a wind energy facility, the department said.

Numerous other proposed wind energy projects that have substantia­lly lesser environmen­tal impacts have received environmen­tal authorisat­ion, the department said.

In the initial bird surveys for the project in 2014, avifaunal consulting firm Wildskies did not support the applicatio­n, noting the risk to birds would be high and, in most cases, not easy to mitigate fully.

Other surveys were conducted that provided varying opinions.

“Understand­ably, the department was confused about how to interpret the difference­s of opinion and called for a peer review, but this was never completed as they issued an environmen­tal authorisat­ion,” said Samantha Ralston-paton, the birds and renewable energy project manager at Birdlife SA.

“This was appealed, and the decision was to revert the applicatio­n back to the department,” she said.

Ralston-paton said the department’s decision ultimately to refuse environmen­tal authorisat­ion for this project is important.

“It supports our view that some environmen­ts are just too sensitive to risk relying on wind farm operators implementi­ng measures throughout the facility’s lifespan to reduce the risk to our country’s biodiversi­ty.”

The department rarely refuses environmen­tal authorisat­ion, and Birdlife SA rarely appeals decisions to approve proposed wind energy infrastruc­ture.

“This is because most reputable developers abandon those really sensitive sites once they become aware of the risks,” she said.

 ?? Photo: Matthew de Lange ?? The Groendal Nature Reserve, close to the Baviaanskl­oof world heritage site in the Eastern Cape, is home to the martial eagle, black harrier and Verreaux’s eagle, which are all at risk of extinction.
Photo: Matthew de Lange The Groendal Nature Reserve, close to the Baviaanskl­oof world heritage site in the Eastern Cape, is home to the martial eagle, black harrier and Verreaux’s eagle, which are all at risk of extinction.

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