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How Karpowership was torpedoed by substandard environmental studies

How Karpowership was torpedoed by substandard environmental studies

  • The R225 billion powerships deal may have been wrecked this week when the environment department refused to authorise the Turkish-led consortium's projects in three ports.
  • The consortium's environmental consultants failed to deliver adequate reports or listen to warnings from specialists, said the department.
  • In response, Karpowership said a "misinformation campaign" had derailed the project. It plans to appeal.

The Karpowership deal was torpedoed by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment - and, unintentionally, by its own environmental consultants.

The Turkish-led Karpowership SA consortium was named preferred bidder in March to supply the lion's share of 2 000MW in capacity the government is procuring to reduce load shedding. But it first needed to secure environmental permits to moor its powerships in three ports: Coega, Saldanha and Richards Bay.

But on Thursday, the department announced it had refused to grant Karpowership that authorisation.

"The competent authority in the department has decided, after due consideration of all relevant information presented as part of the environmental impact assessment process for all three applications in question, to refuse the applications for the environmental authorisations," its spokesperson, Albi Modise, said in a guarded statement.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a mandatory process of assessing the environmental consequences and viability of a project, and ways of mitigating harm. The process requires an open and transparent engagement with the public, and that stakeholder concerns are properly taken into account.

It also required that environmental consultants be independent and "perform the work … in an objective manner, even if this results in views and findings that are not favourable to the [client's] application", the EIA Regulations said.

The record of refusal, signed on Wednesday by chief director Sabelo Malaza, showed the department felt Karpowership's environmental consultant, Triplo4 Sustainable Solutions, failed to conduct a proper public participation process or heed experts who said additional studies were needed to quantify the potentially destructive impact the powerships could have on birds, fish and fishing communities.

The reasons included: "The minimum requirements, specifically with regard to public participation, were not met. The purpose of public participation is not only to promote informed decision-making, but also to promote the legitimacy and acceptance of an outcome or decision and to promote participatory democracy.

"The actual and potential impacts on the environment as well as socio-economic conditions could not be properly evaluated [particularly insofar as small-scale fisheries are concerned]."

Another major shortcoming was Triplo4's failure to "fully investigate" the impact that underwater noise would have on fish and sea mammals.

"Under [these] circumstances it is not possible to make a determination with regard to the significance of potential impacts or consequences for the environment, the effectiveness of potential mitigation measures or whether the project under consideration will constitute a sustainable development."

  • READ | Record of refusal for all three projects in the evidence docket: here, here and here

Explaining the decision to SAFM yesterday, Modise said: "If we give you an authorisation on a project of a long-term nature, we need to be comfortable that we can live with that decision for the next 20 years."

Karpowership responded almost immediately, claiming the department "allowed a misinformation campaign to derail the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy's strategic plan to end load shedding and address South Africa's economic and energy crisis".

The mineral department is responsible for the so-called Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (RMI4P), under which Karpowership and others were selected to supply the 2 000MW emergency power.

Karpowership said the environment department's decision "threatens the delivery of this power and will extend load shedding for years to come".

It denied it had failed to consult affected communities, calling its public participation "robust". It also said it plans to appeal the decision.

But amaBhungane's perusal of more than 1 000 pages of correspondence between Triplo4 and stakeholders suggested Triplo4's handling of the process and draft reports fell well short of what was required. The correspondence was disclosed as part of the EIA process for the 450MW Richards Bay project.

And what Karpowership calls a "misinformation campaign" appears rather to be a chorus of criticism from a wide range of specialists, government entities, civil society groups and members of the public.

Among many complaints, Triplo4 is accused of commissioning a "woefully inadequate" specialist report that downplayed the devastating impact the powerships could have on critically important bird populations.

The documents also show many stakeholders raised concerns about the risk of an explosion in the high-traffic Richards Bay port but were told there had never been an explosion on a gas-fired powership.

What Triplo4 did not disclose was that a steam explosion had occurred on a Karpowership in Indonesia in 2018, as video evidence obtained by amaBhungane shows.

Earlier this month, the environment department temporarily suspended approval of Karpowership's 320MW Saldanha project following a formal complaint from civil society group Green Connection.

The group said a marine ecology expert advised Triplo4 to conduct further studies of the site in Saldanha to determine what impact the noise would have on vulnerable fish-breeding grounds, which could affect the local fishing industry.

Two other civil society groups, the Centre for Environmental Rights and Groundwork, filed similar complaints against Karpowership's 450MW Richards Bay and Coega projects.

Triplo4 was warned site-specific studies were critical.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the government body responsible for conservation and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal, told Triplo4 the EIA would be "incomplete" without a study of the impact underwater noise would have on everything from the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin to commercial prawn fisheries.

"The potential impacts of a wall of consistent noise from the turbines may interrupt that passage through to the marine [area], effectively reducing [prawn] stocks by more than half," Ezemvelo warned in a letter in March.

Triplo4, apparently under pressure to meet Karpowership's RMI4P deadlines, ignored the advice.

The environment department cited this failure as one of the main reasons it refused to authorise Karpowership's projects.

Triplo4 and its managing director, Hantie Plomp, did not respond to detailed questions sent before the decision. Instead, she sent a brief email saying: "[W]e deny any wrongdoing and advise that a full response cannot be provided as the matters are sub judice."

She did not respond when we argued the sub judice rule did not prevent her from speaking to us.

Karpowership also did not respond in detail to our questions.

Its spokesperson, Kay Sexwale, provided a brief written statement before environment department's decision was announced: "We are confident the unfounded claims about the environmental assessments of our projects will be dealt with swiftly. We are continuing to work to the deadlines … and look forward to getting to work helping to alleviate South Africa's energy challenges and supporting the wider economy."

Although Karpowership said it planned to appeal the department's decision, it was unlikely to meet the 31 July deadline for all the RMI4P's preferred bidders to reach financial close.

Without environmental authorisation for its projects, Karpowership cannot reach financial close and it risks having its R183 million bid guarantees called up by the minerals department.

But that department has bigger problems: Karpowership was supposed to provide 1 220MW, over 60% of the 2 000MW programme. Its disqualification, unless overturned, leaves the RMI4P in tatters.

Karpowership and Triplo4 are still facing a separate investigation by the Green Scorpions, the law enforcement unit tasked with investigating environmental crimes.

In May 2020, Karpowership secured a dubious emergency environmental authorisation under Section 30A of the National Environmental Management Act. The permit allowed it to bypass the entire EIA process and bring as many ships as it wanted into South African ports.

That permit was quickly withdrawn and an investigation launched. The Green Scorpions must now determine whether Karpowership, Triplo4 and its representatives should be criminally charged for misleading environment department officials.

But the dire warnings from specialists disclosed as part of Karpowership's subsequent EIA process showed just how devastating the consequences of that decision could have been.

'Fatally flawed'

Some of the most fervent criticism of the Richard's Bay EIA has centred on the avifauna report, which examined the project's potential impacts on the diverse bird populations in the bay.

Richards Bay is an area of critical biodiversity and one of the most important coastal waterbird habitats in the country.

An important ecological feature of the bay is a long tail-like sand bed that juts out from the shore called a sandspit, which is a sanctuary habitat for wading birds. Adjacent to the sandspit are the Kabeljous Flats, an area of relatively undisturbed shallows that supports a range of marine and bird life.

Not only is this area home to many indigenous bird species - from giant pelicans to tiny mangrove kingfishers - it also acts as a critical stop-over for migratory birds and provides shelter during storms and cyclones. It is officially designated as "irreplaceable" in terms of the Biodiversity Act.

This special status was underscored when Professor Digby Cyrus, the head of zoology at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, was asked to provide a specialist study for a rival powership project in Richards Bay.

Cyrus concluded the rival Nseleni project was "fatally flawed" because of the impact noise from the ships would have on vulnerable bird populations, including waders, gulls and terns.

In environmental regulations, "fatally flawed" means the potential impacts of a project are dire, almost certain to happen, and nothing can be done to mitigate the impact. In these instances, the specialist will conclude that a project should not go ahead.

Although at 2 800MW, the Nseleni project would be far larger than Karpowership's 450MW project, acoustic modelling of the two projects show that the noise levels would be similar.

So when Triplo4's avifauna specialist, Leigh-Ann de Wet, concluded the impact of Karpowership's project on birds would be "moderate" to "low - and "none" with the right mitigation measures - Cyrus was incredulous.

"There is clear indication in the literature that the noise levels this project will put out will impact on the avifauna and that they will almost certainly abandon the site," he wrote in a 10-page memo to Triplo4.

Triplo4's noise specialist had predicted noise from the powership's engines could reach up to 90 decibels (technically, A-weighted decibels) on the closest parts of the sandspit, but if silencers were installed (as has been done on one of the company's powerships in Ghana) this would drop to roughly 74 decibels.

De Wet argued that based on the data from Ghana, noise levels should be no more than 64 decibels on the sandspit.

To put that into perspective, the legislated noise limit for industrial areas is 70 decibels. But unfortunately for the birds of Richards Bay, "there is currently no legislation for noise limits in environmentally sensitive areas".

Cyrus argued the level of noise projected to reach the sandspit would be at levels that have been shown to affect birds that were roosting, nesting and feeding.

"The potential total loss [mortality] of the sandspit wader population and the third most important coastal wader habitat in KZN, goes against South Africa's commitment to … 'protect migratory species, their habitats and migratory routes' [and] … should be ranked as fatally flawed," he told Triplo4.

De Wet had a different take.

Although she conceded that the location of the ship was "likely to be detrimental" to the wader population, she had counted few birds when she visited the site.

Her verdict? The risk of any impact would be low. "It is the opinion of the specialist that the proposed development go ahead, provided the mitigation measures are put into place."

De Wet declined to speak to us, referring all questions to Triplo4.

Counting the cost in birds

An EIA is an iterative process, so some level of criticism of a draft report might be expected. But in this case, De Wet was accused of basic failings: poor surveys and cursory research.

Dominic Wieners, a senior official in charge of conservation planning at Ezemvelo Wildlife, called De Wet's sampling effort during her field surveys "woefully inadequate" and in March sent a scathing seven-page letter to Triplo4 citing "serious concerns with the avifaunal report … and the subsequent conclusions drawn".

The importance of the sandspit and Kabeljous Flats had been "grossly understated in the avifaunal report".

Wieners pointed to the case of another energy company that wanted to build in a sensitive bird area, which he said was required to do "12 months of specialist study monitoring by recognised and suitably qualified specialists" to establish the "seasonal variance of birds on the site".

"By contrast, only two hours of infield surveys were done for the pelagic bird component by a specialist who has not shown suitable qualifications to undertake a study of this nature or magnitude. Consequently, the inference drawn by the report is that wader numbers are very low on the basis that not many were recorded on site is problematic," he wrote.

Ezemvelo's verdict? Wieners wrote: "The environmental impacts assessment process … is substantially deficient and therein renders it unusable for a source document in decision-making."

Early on in the EIA process, the environment department warned Triplo4 that "all specialist studies must be conducted in the right season". Karpowership and Triplo4 could not use a shortage of time as an excuse.

One expert pointed out the importance of surveys in summer, "when the key migratory waders were present", while Cyrus, in his 10-page memo, argued a proper assessment of bird numbers should take place over at least "two full winters and four full summers".

In April, the Mhlathuze Municipality, where Richards Bay is located, weighed in via a letter from its deputy municipal manager, Nontsundu Ndonga.

"In light of the information gaps and areas of contention of the EIA and specialist reports against [known] ecological and social costs, it is a challenge for the municipality to draw any firm conclusions on this application," she wrote.

The letter recommended that the study be redone.

But Triplo4 did not hire a new expert to redo the report. Instead, De Wet did further field trips and added further research to her report. When she delivered an updated version two weeks later, her conclusions remained unchanged.

While the powerships "will result in increased levels of noise" that "may result in the displacement of birds that make use of the sand spit", "recent surveys indicate that the sandspit no longer holds such large numbers of birds and as a result, has a reduced overall sensitivity", she wrote.

"However, the spit remains an important bird habitat that should be conserved as far as possible. Nonetheless, the noise levels associated with the Karpowership with mitigation are low and likely to affect feeding birds at low tide and not roosting or feeding birds at high tide. Alternative habitat is also present in the adjacent protected Richards Bay Game Reserve.

"It is the opinion of the specialist that the proposed development go ahead provided the mitigation measures are put into place."

Athol Marchant, an ecologist who was asked to review De Wet's updated report - and given only a weekend to do it - had this warning: "The estuarine habitats in South Africa, including mud flats, have been severely depleted over the years. Any further loss will be devastating for migrant birds and will have a global impact… South Africa should regard any further loss as non-negotiable."

Marchant noted although De Wet had done additional field work, one of these trips occurred after most migratory birds had already left.

In response to her conclusion that the project should go ahead, Marchant wrote: "I cannot agree with this … and I regard it to be a premature statement."

The environment department agreed in its record of refusal this week: "Most of the specialists indicated limitations to their respective studies; amongst, others that they either had very limited time to apply their minds, or it does not apply to the standards of undertaking the assessments and that these studies were undertaken in the wrong season."

Triplo4 was repeatedly warned to address these limitations and the department said. "The gaps and limitations identified in the respective assessments; raises concerns with regard to the adequacy of the assessment and the validity of the findings. The studies should have been updated and amended prior to submission for decision-making."

It also criticised Triplo4 for failing to investigate the impact the powerships would have on the nearby Richards Bay Nature Reserve: "The potential for disturbance to birdlife and reclusive species in the fringes of the reserve's swamp and mangrove forest components is a critical omission… Noise of 50 [decibels] would most certainly result in displacement of species from their core habitat."

Endangered dolphins and commercial fisheries

One of the major deficiencies identified in the department's record of refusal was the lack of research on what impact two large, vibrating powerships would have on life below the water.

Experts told Triplo4 in October last year that a "marine specialist should be consulted to determine the effects of underwater noise on marine animals".

"In marine environments sound is important to animals… The limitation of vision, touch, taste, and smell in water means that sound is critical… Marine mammals thus use sound as a primary means for underwater communication and sensing.

"They emit sound to communicate regarding the presence of danger, food, a conspecific or other animal, and also about their own position, identity, and reproductive or territorial status… Any increase in anthropogenic noise could thus have significant effects on the environment in an ecologically sensitive area," Dr Brent Williams and Jason Hutten from Safetech wrote in their specialist report.

This was reiterated by Ezemvelo Wildlife in a letter in March: "That an underwater noise impact assessment was not undertaken is, in Ezemvelo's opinion, a significant limitation … rendering the environmental assessment incomplete."

Noise impacts on whales and dolphins had not been considered, nor had the impact that a "wall of consistent noise" could have on the migratory routes used by prawns that make up 60% of commercial prawn fisheries.

"Given the proposed location of the powerships adjacent to the most productive part of the estuary, consideration should have been given to this particular impact," Ezemvelo argued.

A marine ecology report, produced by Lwandle Marine Environmental Services, noted long-term exposure to high levels of underwater noise could cause "developmental deficiencies" in fish and marine mammals, and might affect "foraging efficiency, avoidance of predation, swimming energetics and reproductive behaviour".

The report said not enough information was available in the context of Richards Bay to conduct an assessment, and instead relied on underwater noise readings from Ghana which recorded up to 111 decibels 200m from a powership.

If the powerships in Richards Bay "are equivalent in sound generation to that moored in Ghana, then effects on the surrounding marine ecology would be unlikely", the report noted, but concluded: "A noise modelling study should be undertaken to gain a more quantitative understanding of the noise produced from powership operations in the Port of Richards Bay and the cumulative impacts on the surrounding marine ecology."

Triplo4's failure to listen to the experts was one of the major reasons the department said it did not have enough information to approve the Richards Bay project.

An explosive situation

What is apparent from reading the correspondence disclosed as part of the EIA process, is that many stakeholders were simply not convinced by the rosy picture painted by Triplo4.

Vuyo Keswa, an environmental manager for Transnet, wrote to Triplo4 in March, listing concerns about Triplo4's report: "In many instances, the significance of environmental impacts … is said to be low. However, the mitigation measures read more like recommendations than implementable action.. In other areas, the impact mitigation would say 'where possible'."

Keswa asked: "What will happen if it's not possible? Does this mean that the impact will remain? If so how does the impact rating becomes 'low'?"

At public meetings, stakeholders raised concerns about the risk of an explosion aboard the powerships or the nearby storage ship that will hold up to 175 000 cubic meters of liquified natural gas (LNG).

"The risk of an explosion resulting from these ships in busy and economically important port areas are not to be taken lightly," Avena Jacklin from Groundwork warned.

Triplo4, however, dismissed these concerns.

"[W]e disagree with the statement that insufficient information about leakage and explosion risks have been provided. Karpowership has carried out numerous risk studies on their powerships … and have not had any significant safety or other incidents," it said in a letter to a stakeholder.

But was that true?

On 25 November 2018, an explosion ripped through the KPS Zeynep Sultan, a 159m powership moored along the coast of North Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The explosion was captured in a cellphone video. As the camera pans across the port's coal stockyard, a loud bang is heard, followed by the sound of rushing air as debris is sent flying and smoke shrouds the vessel.

According to the Turkish maritime news site Denizhaber.com, the explosion occurred in the ship's boiler room. In response, Karpowership told the site: "[E]lectricity production was interrupted for a short time during the discharge of pressurised steam from the boilers… No injury or loss of life occurred as a result of the technical failure. The outage was completely resolved within a few hours."

There was, however, no mention of this explosion in Triplo4's EIA report or the specialist major hazardous risk assessment report.

Instead, under "Significant Incidents at the Site and Related Sites", expert Claude Thackwray wrote that Karpowership was a "proposed operation and there have been no incidents".

Neither Triplo4 nor Thackwray would comment on whether Karpowership informed them of the explosion, as it was legally obliged to do.

In its final EIA report, Triplo4 wrote: "To date, Karpowership has generated approximately 70 billion kilowatt hours of power around the world with zero environmental incidents… There has never been an LNG ship explosion anywhere."

That distinction is important: The Zeynep Sultan was not powered by LNG at the time of the explosion, but by heavy-fuel oil.

A 'clean' alternative?

Criticism of the EIA has also focused on the premise that Karpowership has been keen to promote: that the LNG the ships will burn is a "clean" alternative energy, and that the project would herald a leap towards reducing South Africa's carbon emissions.

Triplo4 was accused of having swallowed this line uncritically and of failing to properly consider the broader climate implications of a major fossil fuel development like Karpowership's.

In April 2020, the Richards Bay Clean Air Association wrote to Triplo4: "References in the report to LNG being a 'clean fuel' are grossly misleading. While LNG is a cleaner fuel than coal, it still has an environmental footprint, including methane and carbon emissions."

Triplo4's response was that "burning natural gas for energy results in fewer emissions of nearly all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide [CO2] than burning coal or petroleum products".

"Natural gas comprises primarily methane [CH4], which has a higher energy content relative to other fuels. However, main gas emissions emitted upon combustion of natural gas are nitrogen-oxides, negligible amounts of sulfur-oxides, and particulates."

In general, burning LNG produces 40% less carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning coal and produces fewer harmful particulates. But Triplo4 was accused of downplaying the impact of methane on the climate.

There is a developing consensus that the world has failed to appreciate the harm to the climate and environment caused by gas leaks from the point of extraction, through the supply chain, to the point of combustion.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas: not nearly as long-lasting in the atmosphere as carbon, but many times more damaging over a shorter period. The UN Economic Commission for Europe estimates that over 100 years, the global warming potential of methane is 28 to 34 times greater than CO2; over 20 years, the warming potential is roughly 85 times greater than CO2.

Ndonga, the deputy municipal manager from the Mhlathuze Municipality, criticised the draft EIA's lack of detail around gas sourcing, the chemical composition of gas to be used, the regassification process, and poor description of the vessels and the manner in which they would be operated.

In a letter dated 6 April, she also slammed the draft EIA for failing to mention "methane and fugitive emissions arising from operational deficiencies", and said the potential harm of methane as a greenhouse gas needed to be considered against "qualifying LNG as a 'clean' fuel source".

Her letter ended with a stern warning for Triplo4: "The environmental assessment practitioner is reminded that failure to satisfy the above constitutes misleading the process and is an offence in terms of … the EIA regulations."

Triplo4 dismissed concerns about the source of the LNG, saying while the source was not confirmed, Shell would supply the gas and had given assurances it would not be sourced from fracking. Shell would only say the gas will come from its "global LNG portfolio".

In its final EIA report, Triplo4 cited a claim by Shell that "natural gas is the cleanest-burning hydrocarbon, producing around half the carbon dioxide [CO2] and just one tenth of the air pollutants of coal when burnt to generate electricity".

'Undemocratic' participation

One of the main failings identified by the department, however, was how the project was sold to the communities that would be most impacted, including small-scale fishing operations who might see the fish vanish from beneath their boats.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance accused Triplo4 of running a "farcical" public participation process "because it has failed to reach the majority of the interested and affected parties".

It said it did not believe that "online public meetings and documents only being available electronically achieves equitable and effective participation, particularly in respect of vulnerable and disadvantaged persons".

The Anti-Gas Alliance noted that marginalised fishing communities "disproportionately affected by developments in the marine space" had not been adequately consulted.

Other stakeholders grew increasingly frustrated at what they said were delays in circulating minutes of a public meeting in March. And once those were circulated, frustration only grew over the "inaccuracy of the minutes".

Triplo4, in its responses to stakeholders, disagreed that the public participation process "failed to reach the majority of interested and affected parties".

It said that the Richards Bay project was advertised in English and Zulu, and that site notices were put up and flyers handed out. Various bodies from ratepayer associations to state entities were informed of the EIA, according to Triplo4, which noted a long list of community organisations that had participated as stakeholders.

But the department disagreed: "The environmental impact assessment process was compromised as the applicant failed to comply with the requirements … relating to public consultation and information gathering."

Among its objections was that stakeholders were not given adequate time to review the reports, documents were removed from the website and only reinstated when questions were asked, and major changes were made to specialist reports without giving stakeholders a chance to comment.

This "compromises the decision-making powers" of the department, it said.

Sweetheart consultants?

In May, a complaint against Triplo4's Hantie Plomp was lodged with the Environmental Assessment Practitioners Association of South Africa (Eapasa), the regulatory body for environmental consultants.

The complaint, made by green activist Judy Bell with three NGOs in support, contains a litany of accusations, including a mishandled public participation process, poor quality reports, and Triplo4's alleged failure to acknowledge the climate crisis.

Sandy Camminga of the Richards Bay Clean Air Association, one of the three NGOs party to the complaint, was scathing in her assessment of Triplo4.

She told amaBhungane that stakeholders were constantly "hindered" in their attempts to get information from Triplo4: "We are not dealing with an independent [environmental assessment practitioner] here, we're dealing with someone who is constantly defending … Karpowership."

Eapasa has not said whether it will investigate the complaint.

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB Supporter to help us do more. Sign up for our newsletter to get more.

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