The controversial decision to grant environmental authorisation for the Watson family's massive wind farm project on the summit of the Groot Winterhoek mountains near Uitenhage has been overturned, at least temporarily.

Acting Environmental Affairs Minister Lindiwe Zulu upheld five appeals against the 187.2MW, 47-turbine Inyanda-Roodeplaat wind farm, reports GroundUp. She sent the decision back to her department for further consultation and re-evaluation, but this time with the help of independent review specialists.

Zulu, who is Minister of Small Business Development, is also acting in the place of Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who is understood to be on compassionate leave during a period of mourning for her husband Serge Mokonyane, who died in hospital a fortnight ago.

According to recent testimony at the state capture inquiry, Mokonyane was deeply involved in a corrupt relationship with the Bosasa group of companies headed by Gavin Watson. There were concerns that this had created an unacceptable conflict of interest for her as she was the appeal authority in the family's wind farm application.

There were five sets of appeals against the approval from: the Wilderness Foundation Africa, bird conservation group BirdLife SA, Eastern Cape environmental scientist and bird specialist Dr Paul Martin, Professor Gavin McLachlan, a Port Elizabeth architect and regional planner, and Dr Werner Illenberger, a Port Elizabeth-based environmental consultant specialising in coastal issues.

Zulu noted that, according to the appellants, the proposed site and its surroundings had inherent conservation value as these were located in the near-pristine environment of the Groot Winterhoek Mountain and were between separate sections of Groendal Nature Reserve (Wilderness Areas) 'and thus very close to a World Heritage Site'.

Also, the site was within national and provincial Protected Area Expansion Strategy Focus Areas, and most of it had been identified as a Critical Biodiversity Area that included important habitat for a number of threatened species, including birds.

According to GroundUp, she wrote that the appellants had argued that issuing the environmental authorisation (EA) was fatally flawed because of the impact the project would have on birds, visually and on the 'sense of place'. However, she noted that the developer had stated in response that the appellants had 'comprehensively failed to demonstrate' that the Environmental Impact Assessment process is 'unlawful, unreasonable or procedurally unfair'.

According to the developer, its application 'fully complied' with its statutory and regulatory obligations. 'I have decided to uphold the appeals by the appellants and to set aside the decision of the department to grant an EA to the applicant on 5 April 2018. The matter is remitted back to the department for further consultation and reconsideration.'

Full GroundUp report