Sasol set to fight clean air standards

Petrochemical giant Sasol is going to court in an attempt to get pollution emissions standards reviewed and set aside, a move that is being opposed by the government and various environmental groups.

The standards were legislated in terms of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act of 2004.

Initially, Sasol applied for exemptions for its facilities in Secunda in Mpumalanga and Sasolburg in the northern Free State, as well as for the Natref oil refinery in Sasolburg, which it jointly owns with Total South Africa.

The department of environmental affairs refused the exemption request, prompting Sasol to apply for a postponement in implementing the minimum standards.

Sasol has also decided to take the department to the North Gauteng High Court to get the emissions standards reviewed and set aside.

The department’s Thuli Mdluli, who is the national air quality officer, says the department is opposing Sasol’s application and had lodged its responding affidavit in court two weeks ago.

In the affidavit, Mdluli accuses Sasol of deliberately delaying its review application and seeking “a judicial licence” to continue with air pollution from its existing plants.

“These standards are there to protect citizens of South Africa, to ensure that their rights to a safe environment are realised,” says Mdluli.

Bobby Peek, director of environmental group groundWork, says Sasol is trying to dismantle the air quality legislation and should not be allowed to succeed.

The case is expected to be heard in early 2015, with the Legal Resources Centre representing a number of parties as friends of the court, namely the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the Table View Residents’ Association, groundWork, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, the Greater Middelburg Residents’ Association, the Habitat Foundation and Captrust. 

Peek says if Sasol gets the existing emissions standards set aside, it will be a slap in the face to affected citizens and a serious setback after the hard work that resulted in the standards being legislated in the first place. 

In 2004, he says, groundWork and other environmental groups petitioned Parliament to prevent the original air quality Bill from being passed as it did not set mandatory emissions standards. The protest was successful and minimum standards were included before the Act was promulgated.

The department of environmental affairs published the emissions standards in March 2010, and updated them in November 2013.

Sasol argues that, even though the emissions standards were altered in 2013, the deadlines for compliance did not change.

The Legal Resources Centre says that the changes to the emissions standards did not make them “more stringent” for Sasol. Mdluli says the changes were “minor amendments”. 

In the department’s responding affidavit before the court, she argues that Sasol was considering a review of the standards even before the amendments were made in 2013.

In the affidavit Mdluli says the emissions standards that Sasol is contesting did not change between 2010 and 2013 and accuses Sasol of deliberately and wilfully planning to delay bringing its review application, when it could have been lodged in 2010.

“Bringing this review application at this late stage is, with respect, clearly calculated to set the timeframe for compliance by the existing plants of the applicant [Sasol] back some five years or more. What the applicants are, in fact, seeking is a judicial licence to continue with air pollution from their existing plants (as well as from some new plants) unabated over the next few years,” Mdluli says in the department’s affidavit. 

Existing plants have until April 2015 to comply with the minimum emissions standards, and until April 1 2020 to satisfy stricter standards.

Peek argues that if Sasol is serious about cutting its emissions it should move away from using coal to produce fuel and convert its plants to gas.

Sasol spokesperson Alex Anderson said the petrochemical company was committed to complying with air quality laws, and had applied for postponements to manage the short-term risks relating to the compliance timeframes.

Anderson says Sasol has invested about R2?billion a year over the past decade on projects to deliver significant environmental improvements at its South African operations, and that it would be able to comply with 70% of the new plant standards within 10 years. As for the remaining 30%, significant compliance challenges had been identified.

“Our approach to environmental management is focused on continuously improving the impact of our operations in a sustainable manner, in the interest of all stakeholders, including the communities within which we operate,” says Anderson.

In its submission opposing Sasol’s postponement application, the Legal Resources Centre says that Sasol and Natref have not addressed the adverse health effects of their continued pollution, and that the compounds for which they are seeking to delay compliance are harmful and toxic to human health and wildlife.

According to the Legal Resources Centre’s Angela Andrews, one of the key emissions Sasol was seeking a postponement for was hydrogen sulphide (H2S), an “extremely noxious and health-damaging compound”.

The centre’s submission states that research has shown that H2S can cause coughing, breathlessness, nausea, eye damage, damage to the nervous system, headaches, respiratory infections and mental ailments such as depression.

“The plants in question are located close to large numbers of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, whose health has been adversely affected by decades of health-damaging emissions from Sasol and Natref,” Andrews’s submission said.

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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