Eskom's disdain for deadlines 'kills thousands'
Robyn Hugo and Sylvia Kamanja
The right to an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing is a fundamental human right. The National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act (AQA) commenced in 2004, with the primary aim of improving ambient air quality, which in turn would improve the health of all South Africans.
In 2010, as required by the AQA and after five years of consultation with affected parties that included Eskom, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa published standards that industrial emissions could not exceed, including those from coal-fired power stations. Relevant to coal plants are particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, all of which have far-reaching impacts on human health at particular concentrations.
As the law stands, Eskom's power stations – a major contributor to poor air quality – must meet existing plant standards by April 1 2015, and stricter new plant standards by April 1 2020. This delayed implementation allows older plants more time to retrofit the pollution controls required to come into compliance.
Recent events have made it clear that Eskom never had any intention of complying with these standards. In December 2013, more than three-and-a-half years after the standards were published, Eskom submitted, for 37 calendar days' comment from January 6 2014, draft applications for postponement from compliance with the emissions standards for 16 of its power plants. Fourteen of these stations are coal-fired, and all are situated within areas declared as air-pollution priority areas because of existing air-quality problems – including from Eskom's existing emissions. All applications to postpone compliance with 2015 standards must be submitted to the national air quality officer by March 31 2014.
Eskom has indicated its intention to apply for "rolling" postponements, thereby in effect asking for complete exemption from certain standards. The postponement applications are coupled with applications for variations of the conditions of its licences to allow certain stations to emit more than the licences currently allow.
Paraphrased, the main reasons given for Eskom's applications are:
• The benefits of compliance do not justify the nonfinancial and financial costs of compliance, estimated by Eskom to be about R200-billion in capital costs, before financing charges, and about R6-billion a year in operational expenditure;
• The requirements of the Public Finance Management Act make impossible major capital projects required to ensure compliance with the standards in the required five years;
• The only pollution control measure that allows it to meet the SO2 standards for its plants (flue gas desulphurisation, or FGD) requires water that is not available; and
• The same FGD will cause more limestone to be mined and transported.
Instead of installing pollution controls to comply with national emissions standards like all other industrial facilities, Eskom has taken the time to develop its own "emissions reduction plan". This plan is based on the assumption of 50-year life spans for all its power stations, yet Eskom has already indicated that it may extend the life of these plants to 60 years.
Experts advise that Eskom's plan would mean the emission of an estimated 28-million tonnes of excess SO2, 2.9-million tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 560 000 tonnes of particulate matter (a mixture of very small particles and liquid droplets) and 210 tonnes of toxic mercury over the remaining life of the power plants.
The excess SO2 emissions alone are equal to Eskom's entire emissions for 15 years at current rates.
Greenpeace International energy campaigner and coal expert Lauri Myllyvirta has undertaken a detailed assessment of Eskom's current health impacts. He estimates that as many as 2 200 to 2 700 premature deaths are caused each year by the air-pollution emissions from Eskom's coal-fired power plants, including the deaths of 200 young children.
Eskom's emissions are also continuously making us less intelligent: current emissions of mercury are associated with the loss of 45 000 IQ points each year. These impacts are already estimated to cost South Africa R30-billion each year.
Turning to the health impacts of Eskom's "emissions reduction plan", Myllyvirta estimates that the excess emissions are projected to cause, over the life of the power plants, approximately 20 000 premature deaths, including the deaths of about 16 000 young children and a projected loss of 280 000 IQ points to mercury exposure.
The economic cost associated with the premature deaths and the neurotoxic effects of mercury exposure is conservatively estimated to be at least R220-billion. Coincidentally, this is comparable with the amount Eskom estimates to be the cost of compliance with emissions standards.
It should be clear to all who read this that Eskom is holding South Africans to ransom, forcing both the government and the public to sacrifice the lives, health and intelligence of our children – what Eskom casually refers to as "the benefits of compliance". If we don't, we are told, entire power plants will have to be shut down, and the economy brought to its knees.
Eskom already has a shocking history of noncompliance with environmental legislation. It has been cited repeatedly in the National Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Reports. In the 2010-11 report, the department of environmental affairs remarked: "Eskom has become one of the utilities in relation to which we have seen an increase in the numbers of contraventions of environmental legislation … This is extremely concerning in that Eskom has well-capacitated environmental personnel [who] are dedicated to ensure compliance at most of its power generating facilities." Since 2009, Eskom has paid more than R3.2-million in fines for illegal activities. In 2012-13, the department listed its inability to prosecute Eskom as one of the reasons for changing the law that exempts organs of state from criminal liability.
In the absence of regulators that would force Eskom to implement retrofitting at existing plants and proper pollution controls at new plants, we are leaving our air quality and our health in the hands of a repeat offender – an institution that has relied on its special monopoly and state-owned status to avoid criminal prosecution, and to force South Africans time and again to choose between electricity supply and health. This is a false choice that flies in the face of our Constitution and our air quality laws.
Any limited postponement granted to Eskom must be subject to the most stringent conditions, including an accelerated plan for installation of effective pollution controls, and the immediate start of a comprehensive, peer-reviewed, publicly available study to assess the impact of Eskom's emissions on South Africans' health and wellbeing.
Robyn Hugo and Sylvia Kamanja are attorneys at the Centre for Environmental Rights' pollution and climate change programme