Environmental disaster looms

Date: 06 Jan 2015 | By Anna Cox – anna.cox@inl.co.za The Star

THE GAUTENG Department of Education is illegally building a school on a wetland in Riversands, despite being ordered to stop by the Environmental Management Inspectorate of the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. According to the Greater Kyalami Conservancy, which is monitoring the situation, this is illegal as no authorisation exists and it is in contravention of the National Environmental Management Act.

“When the directive was first served about four weeks ago, the contractors were told to remove the site office and cease activity on site, which they did. However, in early December, the grading started again with a site office established. This despite the fact that the Education Department was instructed to stop as no permission exists for this building,” said Kristen Kallesen, head of the conservancy.

The Star visited the site. Kallesen said the school would house 700 pupils from the nearby Riversands Primary School. The land on which the school stands is being developed into a commercial hub by its owners, Century Properties. A community of former Riversands farmworkers who live behind the school have also been asked to leave to make way for the development.

The school was fully operational until the end of term and was expected to continue operating until the matter has been sorted out. Also, the site is not serviced. “This is putting not only the environment and adjacent communities in peril, but also the students who are expecting to attend Riversands Primary in January.

Until just before Christmas, contractors were still on site, grading the wetland. Continuing with this project, despite its illegality and lack of planning and basic services, is a gross disregard for the laws in place to protect the environment, as well as a complete disregard for the students of the Riversands Primary School,” she said. The location of the school is on a busy road and children would need to cross William Nicol Drive and walk along the road, or through the open veld, which is dangerous.

Traffic travels at between 80km/h and 120km/h along these roads, and already there have been accidents. The Education Department, however, told The Star that it was in the process of getting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) done and that the contractor had been busy only with site clearance.

“On finalising the planning of the school, we engaged an environmental expert as part of the professional team assisting with planning, designs, quality assurance and compliance. Although the department is planning to develop 4.7ha, the extent of the site exceeds 5ha. “In terms of the legislation, an EIA is required before development can take place.

The environmental expert has since been instructed to immediately start this. In light of this, the contractor was instructed to cease any activity on site. We remain committed to ensuring that the department obtains all planning permissions for this project,” said Education Department spokeswoman Phumla Sekhonyane. The conservancy has disputed this, saying the clearing of the site is considered “development” and approval is required. Such approval includes a public participation process.

The clearing of the site has already damaged the wetland, and the Education Department, as the owner, should first have requested approvals prior to starting construction. Riversands School would not comment.