Last week the Rhino Oil & Gas Roadshow rolled around Northern KZN and Zululand. They met with angry people wherever they went. Three of the meetings are reported on here.
Bronwyn Howard was in Dundee on 3 March:
The Dundee meeting was relatively well supported with around 90 – 100 people attending, mainly farmers from the Farmers’ Associations in the area. There was one person doing a silent protest at the entrance and the Dundee Courier sent someone to cover the meeting. The meeting was fairly quiet and proceeded in an orderly fashion.
However, northern KZN is situated in the Utrecht Coalfields; coal mining has been taking place here for decades and landowners, farmers and townspeople, as well as local communities, are well aware of the legacy of extractive activities. One farmer in the Wasbank Valley pointed out that many springs in the area that once provided water no longer flow and the water is also very contaminated. He said that there are often ‘too many grey areas’ and that landowners don’t have the funds for costly court cases should exploration and eventual production result in impacts on their water supply. He stated that farmers in affected areas wanted Rhino to quantify the likely future impacts on their streams and rivers and said the company needed to be prepared to pay compensation to farmers so affected for the rest of their lives.
Concerns were also expressed with regards to increased truck traffic on rural and gravel roads and what planning was going to be put in place to mitigate impacts such as road damage, etc. There were also concerns around conservancies and wetlands, particularly those having threatened species on their properties, and how Rhino plans to address these issues. Some landowners also asked about security – issues around theft, uncontrolled fires, water and sanitation for workers. Farmers and landowners were told that they needed to sign an agreement with the production company when the time came but had to grant all reasonable rights of access in terms of the MPRDA. Questions were also raised as to whether seismic drilling would cause earthquakes or tremors, resulting in potential property damage, livestock disturbance, etc.
Landowners were concerned as to how the process could possibly cover all 5 500 affected farms (some farms in the area were not listed too). The consultants advised that initially only 10 boreholes would be drilled for exploration and they would get approval for all sites before they were selected. They said at this stage that they did not have details as to the locations of these boreholes and would negotiate this with the relevant landowners when the time came.
A major concern that emerged was that, if the exploration rights were granted and exploration then proceeded and viable resources were found, it would then become very difficult to stop production from taking place. Information given was very vague with US stats being used and no South African information or extrapolations. For example, in South Africa, one person employed in a rural area often supports 30 more – this was not mentioned in Rhino’s presentation.
In Dundee, there is also a lot of concern about heritage sites, which number some 200, some of which are not yet listed. A KZN Battlefields Route representative said there should be a detailed heritage study. There are now 163 old coal mines in northern KZN, many of which are filled with water. Some of this is contaminated with methane gas and AMD, while some is viable. She also said that there have been geological surveys of this area done over the last 140 years, which are available at the DMR. These results have been recorded and Rhino should use this existing information rather than risking farms and heritage sites. The consultants also said that a heritage impact study would only be conducted once all sites were known (which is impossible as many sites are still being catalogued by the government department concerned).
There was also a request that Rhino set up a trust fund for landowners to cover legal costs if land is damaged by their exploration or production activities and to make provision for arbitration.
Geologists from Dundee also voiced concerns about the water, saying that the resources in northern KZN are not deeply buried. Surveys done on oil and gas in the 1970s revealed that oil is present in the sandstones and has low permeability – this means that fracking will be required to release it. In this area, gas from the coal seams generally disappears into the air once it is accessed. Unregulated fracking will be disastrous – the US has many examples of things going wrong despite regulations.
The opinion was voiced that the process is not democratic – if the public said ‘no’ to exploration and exploitation, would they be listened to? It was pointed out that, in order to apply for rights, a fee of only R100 was payable. Questions were raised as to whether Rhino would be colluding with government if it was found that deposits of oil and gas were viable in this area – what would happen to the land?
A member of the Ngonyama Trust advised that they were concerned about the potential risks to water, saying “Water is life to us. Our water is at risk.” He went on to say that water should be constantly monitored and checked and that any loss or contamination must be compensated.
A landowner’s wife asked what would happen to residents who found themselves without potable water. She said that they would not benefit financially from oil and gas production but that all the farmers and rural people here would be negatively affected.
Other issues concerned the absence of Mr Steyn (and no one therefore being present to answer questions about the company that were raised), as well as the lack of advertising for the meeting. Talana Museum said they had contacted everyone to ensure attendance.
On Tuesday 8 March, Rob Symons travelled up to Melmoth, Zululand, together with activists from the Fuleni and Somkhele communities. This is his report on the meeting.
I expected a low key turnout but was absolutely stunned by what I found. The Melmoth town hall was packed to capacity with a large majority of communities living on Ingonyama Trust land. The meeting was also well supported by members of the local farming community.
The meeting kicked off with Rhino COO Phillip Steyn giving his usual spin on the benefits of Oil and Gas to South Africa and in his view the wonderful benefit fracking has been to the United States. The audience was relatively quiet at first and let the presentation continue with little interruption. However the Chairman of the Melmoth Farmers association then stood up and addressed the meeting in fluent Zulu. He brought up the harsh reality of the shortage of water and with enthusiastic support from the hall stated “This is Zululand and we are thirsty”.
He then introduced the local Nkosi and a member of the Royal family who both declared that they did not want Rhino exploring in their area. The Nkosi declared that Rhino did not have permission from the Ngonyama trust and declared the meeting closed. All then left the hall.
I was struck by the amazing solidarity between the farmers, communities and the traditional authority. The activists with me expressed regrets that their traditional leaders did not show the same level of solidarity with their own communities. This was probably the most stirring of the “fracking” meetings that I have attended. It is wonderful seeing cooperation in action.
In Vryheid, at an emotionally charged public consultation meeting, farmers made their objection to fracking crystal clear. Watch, this farmer challenge representatives of Rhino Gas and Oil to a game of Russian Roulette before asking them to stay out of Vryheid: http://vryheidherald.co.za/40067/watch-fracking-a-game-of-russian-roulette/
Bronwyn Howard attended the meeting in Newcastle on 10 March and compiled this report:
There was inadequate advertising or notification of the Newcastle meeting. It was established that an advert appeared at the back of the Newcastle Advertiser on 18 March 2016 but no other adverts or notices were seen by anyone present. Approximately 40 – 50 people turned up, which was a very low attendance considering that Newcastle is the third-largest city in KZN! Only one person had actually seen an advert. Another point at issue was the venue – a community hall halfway out of town, which is inexcusable in a large city, where a number of more central venues could have been chosen. Many people we and others spoke to (including long-term residents of Newcastle) said they did not know where the hall was. Both these facts meant that there was probably not fair representation of the city and surrounding community at the meeting.
We were also concerned about the presence of NMR, a business consultant appointed by Rhino (we were told). We had noticed at the Dundee meeting that she had curtailed comments during the Q&A session, where some people had left as they were not getting a turn to speak. (One man said he had put up his hand almost 20 times literally before speaking there and had had to stand up and force the issue.) She had also controlled the entire meeting. Accordingly, someone stood up as the Newcastle meeting started and asked whether the NMR representative could stand down, as we were concerned that her presence would prevent the meeting from proceeding in a fair and democratic way. When he was literally ignored, he went up to the NMR consultant and stood in front of her. “I am standing here and I want you to leave,” he said. She continued to shout into the microphone to drown him out. After being approached by one of the Rhino faction, the man left, saying that it would be pointless to remain as those who stayed would not be heard.
I then stood up, after being asked to by people I was sitting with, to request that the meeting be reconvened due to the lack of adequate notice and advertising, as well as the very poor venue choice. I was told to ‘sit down’ and ignored. I then left because it was pointless remaining, as Rhino and its consultants were clearly doing everything to prevent public participation. The Utrecht Afriforum Chairperson later asked why a meeting was not being held in Utrecht, as the exploration area affects many farmers around the town and they were concerned. After some discussion, he was told that the consultants had arranged meetings within 50 km of each town. The Afriforum Chair said that Utrecht was 100 km from Vryheid and 50 km from Newcastle, so why hadn’t they had their own meeting? He was told this would be looked into.
Most people present at the meeting were anti-fracking and were concerned about water resources and the effects of fracking on their water. A local school brought about 20 high school pupils along; they stood up repeatedly during the meeting displaying anti-fracking placards. They had done some research and asked some good questions. There was also an insistence that production be discussed at this point, as the whole exercise had to be stopped now to prevent negative environmental impacts in an area already impacted negatively by coal mining, drought and pollution from various industrial activities.
Bradley Gibbons from the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Grassland Species Programme dressed up as a clown and did a poem presentation with the refrain, “We don’t want fracking, we want water,” which was very popular with those still present. Rhino had no comment except to say that the water bottle Bradley was using had been produced using hydrocarbons! We understand that he later requested a written guarantee to the effect that essential grassland habitats for sungazer lizards and other species he is working to conserve not be affected or destroyed by Rhino’s exploration or exploitation activities.
We are told that, during the Q&A session, attendees were all given numbers and a very short time to speak. We are told that some folk were, however, left out and not given time to speak, whereas one or two spoke for slightly longer than their allotted time.
One good result of Bronwyn’s walk-out was that she was immediately interviewed by Radio Kwezi and SABC Radio also interviewed her by phone the next day – the story will be aired on various SABC radio stations this week.
This week Rhino Meetings move to the Free State and North West for ENVIRONMENTAL AUTHORISATION In support of AN Exploration Right for Petroleum on various farms IN THE REGISTRATION DIVISIONS OF BOTHAVILLE, BULTFONTEIN, HEILBRON, KOPPIES, KROONSTAD, Lindley, Odendaalsrus, Parys, Theunissen, Viljoenskroon, Vredefort, WELKOM, WESSELSBRON & Pretoria (12/3/109 TCP).
Judy Bell and Doug Burden joined a handful of locals at the Sungu Sungu meetings in Dannhauser on 16 March. The venue was a community hall about 15kms out of town, no where near the affected farms and hardly enabling local folk to attend. There was no water in the taps or toilets in this drought stricken area, which made the consultant’s (Brian Whitfield of EIMS) response to where they would get water from, really bizarre. “We will get water from the municipality, not the environment” he said! Clearly, the Municpality has magic water making powers.
Judy asked about the proposed seismic vibroseis testing and how it would affect soil organisms. Apparently the vibrations penetrate up to a kilometre underground. “So how will you know what life you are affecting?” Brian responded faceitiously “Well, we won’t be looking for moles.” Obviously, the consultant has little knowledge of micro-organisms, nematodes and earthworms and the absolutely vital role they have in soil health, which in turn affects eco-systems above ground. The Background Information Document states that the impacts of seismic vibroseis would be minimal, although acknowledges that there may be “noise and vibration nuisance to wildlife and livestock”
Once again, a badly organised public participation meeting – this time from Sungu Sungu, not Rhino Oil & Gas. As a result of the obscure venue, no one turned up but they had definitely been expecting a rowdy crowd. Contact Brian Whitfield firstname.lastname@example.org, 011 789 7170 for more information on this application. Sungu Sungu also hold a Technical Cooperation Permit to explore areas between Giants Castle and Rosetta, as well as Estcourt, Bergville and along the edge of the Berg and into the Free State.