Ezemvelo in the dock for harm to wetland
ZEMVELO KZN Wildlife and the provincial department of Environmental Affairs are facing criminal charges and fines of at least R20 million each after being nabbed by the Green Scorpions, for wrecking a sensitive wetland they were supposed to protect.
A legal notice to be served on Ezemvelo chief executive Bandile Mkhize and the department warns that – unless they can provide satisfactory answers and remedial plans within the next five days – they will be held criminally liable for a host of alleged offences in terms of national water and environmental protection laws.
The R26m project to drain the 40ha Balamhlanga wetland in the Makhatini Flats has also been halted with immediate effect. Ezemvelo could also face rehabilitation costs.
Richards Bay construction company Leomat Construction and Jamela Consulting and Engineering of Hoedspruit also face similar criminal charges, after the Green Scorpions were alerted to the illegal drainage of the wetland near Jozini – conducted under the guise of clearing a “weed invasion”.
The Green Scorpions – the environmental inspectorate of the national Department of Environmental Affairs – said the bulrush species Ezemvelo and the department wanted to destroy was an indigenous wetland plant.
This raised suspicions that the primary aim of the multimillion drainage project was not to clear “invader weeds”,
Ebut to deliberately drain a wetland which had been identified as a priority conservation area. Apart from Ezemvelo chief executive Mkhize, the Green Scorpions pre-compliance notice and directive will be served on Leomat Construction representative Andrea Ramaccio, Jamela representative Mack Sibuyi and acting head of the provincial Department Agriculture and Environment Affairs, Yasmin Bacus.
None of the parties responded to queries The Mercury sent more than a week ago.
It is understood Ezemvelo’s role as “implementing agent” was initiated by the Ezemvelo Special Projects unit, headed by Ntsiki Dlulane.
The Green Scorpions, which conducted an inspection last week, said there was no evidence the parties had authorisation to damage the ecology of the wetland and the drainage was “greatly exacerbated” by the fact Ezemvelo and the provincial department were “organs of State tasked with protection of the environment”.
Green Scorpion officers found a massive central canal and herringbone side canals had been dug out of the Balamhlanga wetland, which feeds the Mholo Pan and is a tributary of the Phongola River floodplain. It was also identified as a priority wetland by Ezemvelo itself in 2012.
Based on the inspection, there were reasonable grounds to believe the drainage project was not authorised.
It was an offence under the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) to unlawfully and intentionally cause significant pollution or degradation of the environment.
It was also an offence under the National Water Act to impede, divert the flow of water or alter the characteristics of a natural watercourse without authority.
“The department has reasonable grounds to believe the activities are unlawful and are being undertaken in a manner which caused, is causing and will cause significant degradation of the Makhatini wetland and Phongola River floodplain.”
The legal notice gives the parties five working days to make representations to the national Department of Environmental Affairs on why it should not issue a formal directive and compliance notice, which would require the comprehensive rehabilitation of the damaged wetland.
It warns all parties could be held liable for at least two separate offences under environmental law, which each carry maximum penalties of R10 million or a jail term of 10 years, along with separate offences under water law which provide for other fines and jail terms.
“Criminal liability for organs of state is no longer absolved under NEMA… Depending on the outcome of the representations made, the department will decide on a way forward regarding this matter.”
Department of Water Affairs KZN chief director Ashley Starkey said his officials had inspected the site and would issue an enforcement notice to the defaulting parties.