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Environment department says no to controversial Watson family wind farm

A proposed wind farm planned by the family of the late Bosasa chief executive Gavin Watson in an ecologically sensitive wilderness area in the Eastern Cape has been shot down by the department of environment, forestry and fisheries because it poses a “high risk” to threatened birds of prey.

The 187MW wind farm was proposed to be located in the Groot Winterhoekberg, which forms part of an expansion strategy for national protected areas, between portions of the Groendal nature reserve and close to the Baviaanskloof world heritage site in the Eastern Cape.

On 18 February, the department refused environmental authorisation for the 52-turbine wind-energy facility after controversially granting environmental approval to the project in April 2018.

“It’s justified. It shouldn’t have taken such a long time to get this decision,” said André van der Spuy, an environmental consultant for the Wilderness Foundation Africa.

“It was a no-brainer from the start that this wind farm shouldn’t have been proposed in such a sensitive location.”

The Wilderness Foundation Africa, BirdLife South Africa, the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, the Eastern Cape department of economic development, environment and tourism, and the Elands River Conservancy had objected to developing the wind farm on the site.

The department had called for a peer review of the environmental impact assessment (EIA), yet issued the environmental authorisation before the review was concluded.

BirdLife SA and the Wilderness Foundation Africa were among those who appealed this environmental authorisation. In April 2019, then acting environment minister Lindiwe Zulu set the decision aside and sent the application back to the department for further consultation and reconsideration.

BirdLife South Africa argued that because the project would have been located on a narrow ridge top and spur, it would be directly in the flight path of birds of prey.

“Some of the species that the wind turbines could have killed are already at risk of extinction in Southern Africa, including the martial eagle, black harrier and Verreaux’s eagle, previously known as the black eagle,” it said.

The project, it said, had been marred by controversy and allegations that eagles were shot and their nests burned in an attempt to sway the EIA.

In 2019, GroundUp reported that four members of the Watson family served as active directors of Inyanda Energy Projects. These included Gavin Watson’s younger brother, Ronald, who is the landowner of the property where the project has been proposed.

Testimony at the Zondo commission in January that year revealed how the then environment minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, was allegedly deeply involved in a corrupt relationship with the Bosasa group of companies headed by Watson.

This had led to concerns that this had created an unacceptable conflict of interest for her, because she was the appeal authority in the family’s wind farm application, GroundUp reported.

In its refusal decision last month, the department said that a December 2020 review of the EIA and avifaunal (birds) specialist study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had found the assessment of the effect of collisions on raptor mortality during the project’s proposed operation was considered to be an understatement.

“This is supported by recent risk modelling for Verreaux’s eagles, that effectively delineates virtually the entire project area as ‘high risk’ for this species. Furthermore, recent studies that have identified suitable buffer distances around raptor nests … effectively identify the entire project area as unsuitable for development,” the CSIR study read.

Given the high occurrence of raptors on the site and the high mortality risks at a local scale, this was considered sufficient grounds from an avifaunal perspective to avoid using this site for a wind energy facility, the CSIR said.

Numerous other proposed wind energy projects that have substantially lesser environmental impacts have received environmental authorisation, the department said.

In the initial bird surveys for the project in 2014, avifaunal consulting firm Wildskies did not support the application, noting the risk to birds would be high and, in most cases, not easy to mitigate fully. Other surveys were conducted that provided varying opinions.

“Understandably, the department was confused about how to interpret the differences of opinion and called for a peer review, but this was never completed as they issued an environmental authorisation,” said Samantha Ralston-Paton, birds and renewable energy project manager at BirdLife SA.

“This was appealed, and the decision was to revert the application back to the department,” she said.

Ralston-Paton said the department’s decision to ultimately refuse environmental authorisation for this project is important.

“It supports our view that some environments are just too sensitive to risk relying on wind farm operators implementing measures throughout the facility’s lifespan to reduce the risk to our country’s biodiversity.”

The department rarely refuses environmental authorisation, and BirdLife SA rarely appeals decisions to approve proposed wind energy infrastructure.

“This is because most reputable developers abandon those really sensitive sites once they become aware of the risks,” Ralston-Paton said.