All eyes on wind farm ruling

Conservationists keep tabs on minister over controversial Watson-linked project

With the flak flying around environment minister Nomvula Mokonyane over corruption allegations levelled at the state capture inquiry, local conservationists are keeping a keen eye on her pending ruling on the controversial Groendal wind farm project – which involves the Watson family.
Mokonyane, who was named this week at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry as an alleged recipient of bribes from controversial company Bosasa, must rule on an appeal against the April 2018 approval of the project by her department of environmental affairs.
The project applicant is Inyanda Energy Projects and one of the heads of the company is Valence Watson, whose brother Gavin has been named in the Zondo Commission testimony as an alleged key facilitator of the Bosasa corruption.
The main landowner of the site for the Inyanda Roodeplaat Wind Energy Facility above the KwaZunga River is Ronnie Watson, a third sibling of the Watson clan, which also includes former Eastern Cape rugby boss Cheeky Watson.
The 35-turbine facility was approved by the department on April 5 2018 while it was headed by Edna Molewa, who died in September.
Approval was announced despite objections from the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency and department of economic development, environment and tourism, as well as Birdlife SA, Wilderness Foundation Africa and the Elands River Conservancy.
The opposition lobby, which also included ecologist and bird specialist Dr Paul Martin, emphasised the sensitivity of the site and its likely severe negative effect, especially on populations of Verreaux’s eagle.
As part of the environmental impact assessment for the project, raptor expert Adri Barkhuysen submitted a report which revealed 27 nesting pairs of Verreaux’s eagles and a further 14 non-territorial birds in a 50km stretch in the area of the project site.
The report showed how the eagles hunted most successfully during cold fronts, using the gusty, misty weather to swoop down on dassies. This technique and the new presence of huge- sweep turbine blades could prove lethal for the eagles, as could the pendulum dives by mating birds, Barkhuysen said.
“Even if one pair falls out of the system the ripple effect could be devastating because the displays by each are done for the benefit of their neighbours of the same species.”
A recent study report by Nelson Mandela University Centre for African Ecology research associate Peter Law showed the negative impact of developments such as wind farms on wildlife could be much worse than previously estimated because of crippling blows to regional populations of various species.
Birdlife spokesperson Sam Ralston-Paton said on Thursday the concerned parties were eagerly awaiting the minister’s decision on the matter after submitting their appeal on April 25 2018.
“Unsound decision-making has far-reaching consequences. It throws open the doors to unsustainable development.
“We are blessed with good wind resources in this country and there are so many alternative sites, so approval of an unsuitable site like this is unnecessary,” Ralston-Paton said.
“We support wind farms but they must be in the right place and properly mitigated.”
Birdlife has emphasised that the site falls within the national and provincial Protected Area Expansion Strategy and that most of it has been identified as a Critical Biodiversity Area.
The organisation also pointed to the near-pristine state of the Groot Winterhoek Mountains where the project site is situated and the possible indirect effect on the ecology of the area if raptors were killed off by the turbines.
Wilderness Foundation Africa CEO Dr Andrew Muir said on Thursday that the siting of the project was unacceptable.
“It lies right on the border of an important conservation area which is protected simultaneously under provincial environmental legislation as the Groendal Nature Reserve and under the National Forestry Act as the Groendal Wilderness Area,” Muir said.
“It is the first time that a development of this nature is being considered in such a sensitive position and it should not be approved.”
The proposed installation of the turbines on top of the Groot Winterhoek mountains would also cause serious visual pollution, he said.
“Sense of place would be eroded. Environmental legislation has been ignored. That is why we are appealing.”
The department was contacted on Friday to clarify when Mokonyane would rule on the wind farm, but no information was available by the time of going to print.
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