Two of KwaZulu-Natal’s top estuary experts have voiced “astonishment” over the government’s decision to allow sand mining on the edge of the Mpenjati River nature reserve, the province’s only legally protected estuary south of Durban.

Although the provincial Department of Environmental Affairs granted approval for the mining venture almost a year ago to Joymac Sands, the provincial government has yet to make a final ruling on appeals by the coastal watchdog group Coastwatch and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

Durban scientists Nicolette and Ticky Forbes, of Marine and Estuarine Research, who specialise in the ecological importance of estuaries (the interface zone between the salty sea and freshwater rivers) said they were “amazed and outraged” that the environment department could authorise sand mining so close to the estuary.

The Mpenjati reserve is also linked to the offshore Trafalgar Marine Protected Area.

Nicolette Forbes argued that an environmental impact assessment prepared by Joymac’s environmental consultants was “completely lacking in scientific credibility” and failed to pay proper attention to the ecological importance of estuarine processes.

Yet, despite “solid and strong objections” by Ezemvelo and Coastwatch, the department had approved an application by Herman Pretorius of Joymac Sands to mine up to 20 tons of sand a day in the estuary for the next two years.

Forbes said mining began almost immediately after the authorisation was granted.

“Anyone who wants to suggest that because this is happening in only one half of the estuary, and that the other half is protected, is welcome to debate the issue with any estuarine scientist who knows anything about whole system ecology,” Forbes wrote to senior officials of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Ezemvelo.

“This is a clear example of how the (environmental approval) process is not protecting sensitive coastal environments such as estuaries. If we can’t get it right with this protected estuary… then we may as well concede on the others.”

A recent estuary management plan prepared for Ezem-velo KZN Wildlife stated that the estuaries of KZN were critical “life support systems” for fish, prawns and other marine species.

“There are 74 estuaries in KZN, of which only 10 fall within officially protected areas. Of the 50 estuaries south of Durban, only one – Mpenjati – is formally protected.”

A separate scientific report to the SA National Biodiversity Institute notes that only 1 percent of estuarine habitat across the country remains in excellent condition. About 14 percent is classified as in good condition, 31 percent in a fair condition and 54 percent in a poor condition.

In its decision authorising the sand mining application by Joymac, the environment department said illegal mining along the upper sections of the Mpenjati River was “totally uncontrolled”.

Senior department official Harry Strauss argued that legally authorised mining was a much preferred alternative as the impacts could be monitored and audited.

“A lack of sand, or sand at unreasonably high prices, will also open the window for more illegal sand mining,” he said.

Opposing appeals against the mining, environmental attorney Jeremy Ridl argued on behalf of Joymac that while Ezemvelo had a legitimate interest in safeguarding the environment it had no legal authority to lodge appeals to the MEC for environmental affairs. He argued that the Coastwatch appeal was also invalid on procedural grounds.

Ridl said Ezemvelo had also failed to substantiate its claims that Joymac’s sand mining project would adversely affect the Mpenjati estuary.

“To the contrary, despite sand mining operations over more than 40 years, the estuary is in exceptionally good condition,” he suggested.

The amount of sand to be mined was “relatively small” and easily replenished, he said.

“None of the relevant authorities or Ezemvelo has the will or fortitude to tackle the upstream abuses, which if left unchecked, as they seem destined to be, will lead ultimately to the demise of the estuary.”

By removing excess sand eroded away by illegal mining further upstream, Ridl said, the Joymac venture was “a rare example of activities with potentially negative impacts, cancelling the effects of each other”.

In her submission, Coastwatch chairwoman Di Dold said that when the regional, provincial and national importance of the Mpenjati estuary was considered, the only possible outcome of the appeal process would be to refuse environmental authorisation.