Objective of the flight: 

The objective of the mission was to gain an aerial perspective of the proposed Atha mine site northeast of Wakkerstroom and of the following day’s ‘Visual Petition’ site at Birdlife facility adjacent to the Wakkerstroom Sanctuary vlei.

Pilot:  Karl Jensen

Aircraft: Cessna 170

Beneficiary:   Centre for Environmental Rights (CER)

An Indian mining company, Atha-Africa Ventures (Pty) Ltd (part of the India-based Atha Group), wants to build a coal mine underneath a protected area outside of Wakkerstroom, known as the Mabola Protected Environment. This area was declared protected by the Mpumalanga Environmental MEC in 2014. If this mine goes ahead, it could imperil the water supplies of everyone who depends on the Vaal, the Pongola or the Tugela for their water. Eight civil society and community organisations have taken up the fight to protect this important water area from the threat of the mine.

The Yzermyn mine proposed by Atha-Africa Ventures plans to mine 2.26 megatonnes coal per annum. Atha plans to export most of this coal and it has no other active mining operations in South Africa. Expert reports show that, if the mine is allowed to proceed, it would dry up the wetlands and springs in the wider area and draw water from underground water resources. There is a high risk that the mine would pollute the streams that feed the rivers originating in the area. Seepage of acid mine drainage from the mine into the freshwater system is likely, decades after mining has ceased and the company has left the area.

Report from the pilot, Karl Jensen:

“This mission was planned to fly from Fly Inn Estate via certain environmental problem areas to Volksrust as the Wakkerstroom airfield is no longer usable. I travelled to Fly Inn Estate where my aircraft is based near Bapsfontein on 22 September to fuel the airplane and program my plane’s GPS.

Day 1: Departure time was set for 10h00 on 23 September from Fly Inn Estate. Weather forecast 1500’ cloud base at destination, visibility good. Actual weather at Atha site unusable with tops at 8500’ and overcast. Actual departure 10h35. The objective of the mission was to gain an aerial perspective of the proposed Atha mine site northeast of Wakkerstroom and of the following day’s ‘Visual Petition’ site at Birdlife facility adjacent to the Wakkerstroom Sanctuary vlei. En route to the Atha site, surveys were carried out of dreadful environmental degradation and the associated environmental pollution by the coal mining activities that supply coal to the Mpumalanga Eskom power stations.

Passing Bethal in turbulent flight conditions, the weather deteriorated and by the time we reached the proposed mine site, it had become completely overcast and we diverted directly to Volksrust. We flew past a hole in the clouds which enabled us to safely descend over Wakkerstroom to survey the proposed ‘Visual Petition’ site before continuing on to land at Volksrust at 12h30. I secured the aircraft and we were collected by a CER rental car and delivered to our overnight accommodation at Wakkerstroom.

Passengers on 23 Sept: Melissa Fourie (CER), James Oatway (Photo Journalist).
Passengers on 24 Sept 1st flight: James Oatway (Photo Journalist), Mark Olalde (Journalist).

Weather – visibility good but with strong upper winds. The R/H aircraft door was removed for optimum photography. Departure Volksrust was at 09h40 when Melissa Fourie advised that the petitioners were in position for overhead photos in the Wakkerstroom Birdlife grounds. We flew to the site and made about 5 or 6 passes from various angles and altitudes to get suitable photos before proceeding to the proposed Atha Mine site. From the coordinates supplied to me, the site lies in mountainous and pristine terrain and is sparsely populated. We could not see any signs of exploratory mine work except for a gravel road that had recently been widened. After landing back at Volksrust, the journalists were collected and taken to Wakkerstroom and then a road trip to the proposed mine site. I refitted the door and loitered at the airfield until departure time.

Passengers on 24 Sept 2nd flight: Melissa Fourie (CER), James Oatway (Photo Journalist), Mark Olalde (Journalist).

Departure from Volksrust to fly via Camden Power station, Secunda and the Arbor community east of Delmas and on to Fly Inn was at 15h05. The wind was still troublesome, causing a very bumpy ride.

Conclusion: According to the passengers, the mission was worthwhile with valuable data gathered and observations made and a great rapport established with the ecology conscious Wakkerstroom and area participants. Once again I stress the privilege it is to do a flight where one can observe from the air and appreciate the severe impact and scars on the environment of abandoned and operational open cast mines that makes a caring person want to weep. I have flown several Bateleur missions in the area in question and each time, the visual damage to the environment becomes noticeably more distressing for me.”