Eskom makes Mpumalanga sick

A new study by environmental justice group groundWork found that Eskom is the primary driver of deaths and health risks related to outdoor air pollution in Mpumalanga.

It drew upon official reports’ peer-reviewed literature and air pollution statistics to understand the coal industry and Eskom’s impact on health risks faced by people in Mpumalanga.

GroundWork found that “Eskom’s coal-fired electricity generation is responsible for 51% of hospital admissions and 51% of mortalities due to respiratory illnesses caused by outdoor air pollution”. It also found that 54% of deaths from air pollution-related cardiovascular diseases could be attributed to Eskom. 

The research concluded that the parastatal was solely responsible for 82% of the sulphur dioxide and and 73% of the nitrogen oxide released across the Highveld Priority Area, which covers much of the province. This is an area that the environment department declared as very polluted in 2007, and therefore needed special attention to reduce the air pollution levels. Professor Rajen Naidoo, an occupational health physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said this primarily caused respiratory-related illness. It also drove cardiovascular problems, cancers and interrupted the development of the foetus. 

In an open letter to the parastatal, groundWork said: ” Eskom’s own documentation states unequivocally that Eskom’s polluting power stations are killing people.”

In 2007, the area was declared a priority area by the environmental affairs department, thanks to the poor air quality. It is home to 12 coal-fired power stations and hundreds of coal mines that export their best quality coal, supplying Eskom with the lower-grade coal. 

At the heart of the region is eMalahleni (place of coal). It has been the focus of much research, with one European Union team finding it had one of the worst air qualities in the world. This was because of the level of heavy metals in the air, the research showed. 

Thomas Mnguni, a community activist in Mpumalanga who helped with the research, said: “The air we breathe is not safe for human health.” Residents of the province were therefore being promised that their needs were being prioritised, while the reality was that industries were being put first, he said.

Coal power stations have to adhere to air quality standards, but the report said that these standards are weaker than the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This concern has been echoed by several environmental rights organisations. 

Companies could therefore, legally, emit more than was deemed safe for human health. If the WHO standards had been in place for the last five years, up to 165 fewer people would have died, the report said. These limits are being lowered due to new air quality legislation.

Huge health cost of pollution

Similar research for non-governmental organisation Greenpeace on Mpumalanga’s coal-fired power stations said the cumulative health costs in the next decade from their continuing operation would be R230-billion. It also said up to 2 700 people a year died because of the pollution from the coal-fired stations’ emissions. Eskom has publicly stated that the costs of ensuring its fleet met new standards would be a minimum of R200-billion. 

Bobby Peek, the director of groundWork, said: “It’s a common reality that the young suffer, and the aged suffer. We are creating a sick population in Mpumalanga.” With young people’s development being hampered, the future population was also going to be affected, he said.

Eskom had previously not released documents about the health impact of its operations, and only did so after a Promotion of Access to Information Act request by the Centre for Environmental Rights.

It released two studies, on the impact of its stations in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. The former said: “current Eskom power stations were cumulatively calculated to be responsible for 17 non-accidental mortalities per year and 661 respiratory hospital admissions”. The latter found that the current Matimba station and the forthcoming Medupi station would kill nearly three people a year.

The groups are releasing their research to oppose Eskom’s request to the environmental affairs department to have rolling postponements on its plants’ compliance with new air quality standards. These includes its new stations which have not yet been finished. It cited the current power crisis and the cost of upgrading the stations as mitigating reasons. “It is not practically feasible or beneficial to South Africa to fully comply with the minimal emission standards,” it said.

The environment department has not ruled on the applications and will not comment on the ongoing process. But it has returned to Eskom to ask for more information, including on the health effects of its stations. The studies the power company was forced to release were not included in the applications.

Eskom does not answer questions about the health impacts of its stations, and rather points to the possibilities of reducing deaths in households if greater electrification can occur. Several studies have found that indoor air pollution – from burning coal and wood – impacts people’s health worth. 

A 2004 report for a government development cluster found that this was responsible for 69% of health problems caused by air pollution, and two-thirds of all deaths of pollution-related deaths. Around 300 people a year died because of the burning of fossil fuels, with 5% as a result of coal-fired power stations, it said. 

South Africa’s Constitution guarantees people the right to an environment “which is not harmful to their health or well-being”. The onus is on the state to ensure that this right is upheld. 

When Mail & Guardian visited the town of Kriel, surrounded by power stations, the common complaint from people was that they had coughs and chest problems. The conditions had seemingly become ubiquitous and people blamed the two adjacent power stations and the coal mines that supplied them. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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