Companies guilty of air pollution get a five-year reprieve

The environmental department has given most of South Africa’s polluters a reprieve of up to five years to comply with air quality legislation.

The department of environmental affairs today released a list of heavy polluters that would be given postponements for complying with air quality legislation. Environmental and social groups have said the exemption is tantamount to granting the polluters a “licence to pollute” and “making toxic air legal”.

In 2005, the department began drafting legislation that would force polluters to lower their emissions. It said at the time that the worst pollutants were sulphur dioxide and mercury – which lead to respiratory problems and death – as well as carbon dioxide – one of the main drivers of global warming.

The National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act came into law in 2010.

It gave the 1 000 existing polluters until April 1 2015 to bring their facilities into compliance. But there was a loophole, allowing polluters to apply for five-year postponements.

Decisions that will cause deaths
The environmental department received 37 of these applications and released the results of 35 of these today. Announcing the list, Environmental Minister Edna Molewa said each one had to come with an air quality impact assessment and a road map of how they would comply with the legislation.

Her department was “committed to upholding the constitutional rights of South Africans to an environment that is not harmful to health and wellbeing”. But this came with a caveat; that this must ensure that “economic growth is not hampered”.

The list includes the majority of Eskom’s power stations and large corporate polluters such as Sasol and Anglo American Platinum.

Bobby Peek, of nongovernmental organisation groundWork – an environmental justice service and developmental organisation – said: “Communities invest a lot of faith in government to do the right thing and here it has said ‘stuff you, we are backing the corporates’.”

The delay would probably be repeated in 2020, with the same companies asking for further postponements, he said. “They knew a decade ago and have done nothing, so that will not change.” This meant the cost of air pollution would be externalised to the communities that lived near facilities.

The cost would then be carried by government in healthcare costs and in the economy because people would be unable to work, he said.

“We are not going to have healthy people left in the highveld [of Mpumalanga where the majority of Eskom’s stations are]. This decision means people will die.”

Power stations’ culpability exempted
Last year the Mail & Guardian received air quality assessments for Limpopo and Gauteng done for Eskom in 2006 when it was planning on expanding its fleet. The two provinces are home to most of its coal-fired power stations and the assessments had been granted after a Promotion of Access to Information request by nongovernmental group Centre for Environmental Rights.

The 276-page report on Mpumalanga found that air pollution in the province killed about 550 people a year, and about 117 000 people were admitted to hospital. The burning of wood and charcoal in homes was responsible for half of this. Eskom was responsible for three percent of the deaths, it said.

“Current Eskom emissions [from eight stations] are cumulatively responsible for 17 nonaccidental mortalities per year and 661 respiratory hospital admissions,” it said. Four stations were responsible for 95% of these deaths – Kendal, Matla, Lethabo and Kriel – and sulphur dioxide was the worst gas being emitted. All of these stations were given exemptions by the environmental department.

The Limpopo report found that, once completed, Medupi – the new 4 800MW coal-fired power station – would kill 1.4 people a year and put 144 in hospital with respiratory problems. Flue gas desulphurisation could cut 95% of the sulphur emissions, it said. This was a requirement of the World Bank loan given to Eskom for the station’s construction.

If the technology was installed, the report said one mortality would be “avoided” each year, as well as 50 respiratory hospital admissions.

Medupi was included in the postponements. In response to M&G questions on the plant last year, Eskom said desulphurisation could not be done until 2027 because of water shortages in the Lephalale area.

The huge cost of compliance 
The parastatal asked for postponements to delay its compliance with air quality legislation last year, and has threatened price increases and blackouts if these are not granted. Half of its 39 000MW base load generating capacity would have to be turned off on April 1 2015 if it had to comply with legislation, it said.

Compliance would cost “in excess of R200-billion”, it told the M&G. This would necessitate a 17% increase in the electricity tariff.

Eskom has consistently refused to comment on whether its stations cause deaths and hospital admissions. It instead points to offsets as a solution to air pollution, that getting rid of wood and coal burning in homes would save lives. “Studies have shown conclusively that the primary contributor to negative health impacts is domestic coal and wood burning,” it said last year.

But the utility was embarking on an “extensive emission reduction programme” over the next two decades, it said.

Postponements were also given to Sasol, which asked the Pretoria high court in July last year to review – and possibly set aside – the air quality standards. The petrochemical company had not responded to questions by the time of publication.

Robyn Hugo, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said the postponements were “worrying” because they contained little detail. “They are very slim decisions. They do not show how compliance will be monitored, or even what penalties will apply if people do not meet their commitments.”

Companies were able to offset their emissions and had until March 2016 to give the department these plans. “The problem now is that postponements have been granted and there seems to be little to ensure that they are acted upon.”

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

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