Approval for Watson wind farm set aside
The acting minister of environmental affairs has set aside her department’s approval in 2018 of the Watson family’s wind farm project in the Groot Winterhoek Mountains.
Lindiwe Zulu said in her ruling she had considered the concerns raised in the appeals, including the impact on the Verreaux’s eagle, the sensitivity of the site on the border of an important conservation area and the department’s call for an independent review, which had not been implemented.
“I have decided to uphold the appeals and to set aside the decision of the department on April 5 2018 to grant an environmental approval.”
The decision was welcomed by the appellants, including the Port Elizabeth-based Wilderness Foundation Africa, which hailed it as a milestone.
Foundation CEO Dr Andrew Muir said: “In the renewable energy sector, this is the first time an appeal against an unsuitable project has resulted in approval being set aside. “It’s a champagne moment.” The Inyanda-Roodeplaat Wind Energy Facility project was launched in 2013 by Inyanda Energy Projects with a proposed site above the KwaZunga River on the border of the Groendal Nature Reserve, northwest of Uitenhage.
The land is owned by Ronnie Watson, who is also one of four family members heading up the company.
The 47-turbine, 12,200ha project was approved by the department of environmental affairs despite a range of critical reports – including one by raptor specialist Adri Barkhuysen, who described how Verreaux’s eagles could be cut down by the turbine blades.
Objections also came from the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency and the Eastern Cape department of economic development, environment and tourism, as well as Birdlife SA, the Wilderness Foundation Africa and the Elands River Conservancy.
With appeals against the ruling having been submitted for consideration by new environment minister Nomvula Mokonyane, the matter was thrown into the spotlight when allegedly corrupt links between her and Bosasa – headed by Ronnie’s brother Gavin – emerged in January at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture.
The long-awaited ruling issued on Monday was signed by Zulu as minister of environmental affairs (acting), with no reference to Mokonyane.
It referred to the Wilderness Foundation’s view that the project’s position on the summit of the Groot Winterhoek was a fatal flaw and the project was in conflict with the Groendal Wilderness Area, the Baviaanskloof Heritage Site, biodiversity and water plans and “the reasoned opinions of various Eastern Cape authorities”.
She noted the view of Birdlife SA that the independence of the environmental impact assessment was questionable and threats of legal action sent to concerned parties by the developer’s lawyer could have undermined the public participation process.
She also referred to the appellants’ view that the developer changed the bird specialist after the first one identified critical problems, and disregarded the department’s call for an external peer review.
Zulu said the department’s decision to appoint its own bird specialist had not been implemented.
“In light thereof, I cannot find that an informed decision regarding the impacts and mitigation measures of the proposed facility was reached.”
The department should now appoint this consultant and the applicant developer should cover the costs, she said.
“The matter is referred back to the department for consultation and reconsideration.”
Zulu said that, in the meantime, the developer had 180 days to contest her ruling in court if it wished to do so.
Birdlife SA spokesperson Samantha Ralston-Paton welcomed the ruling.
“We support renewable energy [but] we do not support the development of wind turbines in important conservation areas, or where they may present a risk to raptors.”
Valence Watson, brother of Gavin and Ronnie and a director of Inyanda Energy Projects, said on Tuesday he had not yet heard about the ruling.
“I’ll find out – but either way, we don’t want to comment,” he said.