Nghitila defends his position

By Tileni Mongudhi

NAMIBIA’S Environment Commissioner, Theo Nghitila, defended his decision to issue an EIA clearance to pave the way for controversial marine phosphate mining to go ahead.

Nghitila told The Southern Times that the process leading to the award of the EIA clearance was done above board, that the EIA clearance was not issued in secret and that consultations did take place before he issued the certificate.

He argued that government, at Cabinet level, was consulted and that there was no undue influence leading to him issuing the clearance certificate.

Nghitila also countered the argument that marine phosphate mining will kill the Namibian fish population as an unproven fact, adding that mining area ML170, where the phosphate mining activities are expected to start, is only 2,200 square kilometres of which only 60 square km will be used for mining purposes out of the 580,000 square km of Namibian waters.

“They will probably be mining one square km per year,” he said.

Nghitila was speaking to The Southern Times after his decision to grant an environmental impact assessment clearance certificate sparked a public outcry. He said that based on information submitted to his office, phosphate is just organic matter that has decomposed on the seabed.

“Some of the theories are that it (phosphate) is radioactive,” he remarked, adding that people are imagining phosphate mining to be similar to open pit mining like Rio Tinto’s Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia.

Nghitila said the first EIA was submitted to his office in 2012 and it was rejected and his office instructed that a verification study be done. The verification study took six months to complete and part of the study was to establish whether mining area ML170 was a spawning ground for fish. He said the study showed that area was not a spawning ground.

“Phosphate is not poisonous,” he added, insisting that both the findings of the original environmental impact assessment and the verification study were presented to both the environment and fisheries ministries in April this year.  The Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) then requested the team, which conducted the study, to present its findings in the presence of scientists from the ministry. This was done and the scientists’ concerns were incorporated into the project’s environmental management plan, Nghitila said.

The team conducting the study then incorporated the fisheries ministry’s concerns into the environmental management plan and the report was sent back to the ministry. But according to Nghitila, the fisheries ministry dropped the ball and failed to make further objections.

He said consultations did not only end with the fisheries ministry but also at Cabinet level. “There was a Cabinet committee on trade and economic development, I made two presentations to that committee. That was also consultation. During all these processes, no letter of objection was written to my office. They are only objecting now that I issued the clearance,” Nghitila said.

He pointed out that the public can still seek recourse with the Minister of Environment and Tourism (MET) and if they are not happy with the minister’s response they can appeal to the courts.

Regarding the much-talked about disclaimer in his clearance, Nghitila said it was a standard feature in all his clearance certificates. He said it is to ensure that in the event the applicants gave misleading information, they can be held liable.

Nghitila said the fishing industry has been opposed to the project from the onset and did not give valid scientific reasons for its argument but rather focused on protecting the 15,000 jobs. He assured that there will be no job losses due to mining of phosphate.

The public, he said, has a fear of the unknown and the best way to know is to allow the project to continue to allow for studies to be done on the real impact phosphate mining has on the marine ecology.

Chronology of Events

According to Nghitila, this was the chronology of events leading to his decision to award the EIA clearance certificate.

1. 2011: Mining Licence (ML)170 was issued to Namibia Marine Phosphate (herein referred to as the proponent) to mine phosphate materials from the seabed offshore approximately 120km south-west of Walvis Bay. The ML was issued by the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), before the Environmental Management Act No 7 of 2007 was enacted.

2. 2012: the EIA and EMP for the abovementioned project was submitted to MET for review, of which the internal review was completed. The report was also subjected to specialist external review in order to obtain objective views. The specialist external reviewer recommended that the field work based verification study was necessary to improve the level of confidence of the scientific predictions of the severity, extent and possible duration of impacts arising from the dredging operations. In fact, the verification programme was characterised by the re-evaluation of the assessments of impacts in the EIA of 2012;

3. 2014: Namibia Marine Phosphate (NMP) undertook the six-month verification programme. The verification study report, the update Environmental Management Plan and the independent peer reviews were submitted to MET for review and possible decision making. These reports were also shared with MFMR for their review, as the competent authority.

In addition to the above review, MET also subjected the above reports to a specialist external reviewer, namely Southern Africa institute of Environmental Assessment (SAIEA). The SAIEA reiterated their recommendations of their 2012 specialist external review of this project that once the verification surveys are undertaken such data will establish useful baselines from which further monitoring activities can be undertaken during and after the dredging cycle.

4. April 7, 2016: The environment ministry met MFMR to discuss the verification report and update EMP submitted by NMP and the way forward at MFMR head office. This meeting decided to workshop the reports submitted together with the consultants who had worked on the report;

5. April 27, 2016: Workshop on the NMP verification study report and updated EMP took place in Swakopmund. At this workshop the proponent made a presentation on the report, which was followed by a plenary session. Additionally, they also provided clarity on the concerns raised by MFMR.

6. May 16, 2016: A written submission on the clarity provided at the workshop of April 27 was submitted to MET by the proponent;

7. June 13, 2016: The report referred to above was shared with MFMR for their input, which is yet to be received by MET;

8. July 12, 2016: The proponent was informed of the ongoing consultation process at a meeting held at MET.