In the end, it comes down to a philosophical question that has deep practical implications: Can a government trade lives in one place to save lives elsewhere?
South Africa’s big industries pollute. That pollution makes people sick and leads to others dying. Instead of fixing that pollution straight away, companies are given a reprieve – by the government – to do projects in their surrounding communities that offset their own pollution. But it means people are still on the receiving end of pollution flowing from industry.
This process is at the heart of a fight between the government, polluting companies and the communities that have to live with that pollution. The majority of the actors in this power struggle – affected community members – say the former two are in virtual cahoots.
That narrative goes as far back as 1996, when communities in the heavily polluted industrial heartlands of the Vaal and the Highveld began to agitate for air quality legislation. Living on the doorstep of the country’s biggest corporations, they wanted a way to force those companies to pollute less.
The government, to an extent, agreed and started drafting air quality legislation. Its first incarnation did not set limits for pollution coming from factories. It sought only to improve overall air quality. But pressure from communities forced a change. By 2010 a version of the law was promulgated that set strict limits for factories, forcing them to progressively lower their emissions of dangerous gases such as sulphur dioxide. It would come into force by 2015.
But in 2013 both Sasol and Eskom – the largest air polluters in the country – said they would not meet the deadlines. Several companies asked for exemptions. The law did not allow for this, but a loophole did allow companies to apply for postponements in complying.
Civil society says this is the point at which government caved in. David Hallowes, of nongovernmental environment group groundWork, says: “Offsets were then produced, like a rabbit from a conjuror’s hat, to condone noncompliance.”
In return for getting more time to comply with the law, companies were told to produce road maps for compliance – and proposals for projects they could do in the meantime to offset their ongoing emissions.
In announcing the process in 2014, Environment Minister Edna Molewa said: “These postponements provide an opportunity for industry to take the necessary actions and retrofit their plants to enable them to comply with the standards in the near future.” Companies would have until 2020 at the latest to comply with the Air Quality Act, she said.
Answering Mail & Guardian questions this week, Albi Modise – the environment department’s spokesperson – said offsets “address persisting air quality problems in the specific areas while compliance road maps are under implementation for future compliance”.
This means overall air quality in an area can be improved while companies are working to lower their emissions, he said. Offsets go a step further than reducing point-source emissions from smokestacks, because they work on all air quality problems in an area, said Modise. “It is expected that there will be measurable reductions of pollution in the ambient air [as a result of different offset programmes].”
But some companies might need more than the five-year limit given them to install the technologies they need to come into compliance, he said. These companies include Sasol and Eskom.
The power utility received several postponements for its decades-old coal-fired power stations. At the time it said: “The decision will allow power stations to continue operating at current levels until the planned reduction programme is executed.” Eskom has consistently maintained that it is impossible to link specific industrial operations to health problems, as there are many sources of pollution. But it has yet to publish its offsets.
These offsets are projects that the companies commit to in their surrounding communities, to reduce emissions at a community level. “Nonindustrial sources are known to contribute significantly to the exceedance [of regional limits for air pollution],” Sasol told the M&G last year. It said offsets were a better way of achieving air quality and socioeconomic benefits, which are “not always achievable through further point source abatement”.
Last week Sasol published its proposed offsets. Suggestions included improving the insulation of homes so people would have less need for stoves and fires – which produce emissions that the government has identified as putting the biggest burden on the healthcare system.
But the affected communities say this is tantamount to the government outsourcing its work. Samson Mokoena, of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, says: “Houses should be built properly. We should have more sustainable development. Instead, government can step back and allow industry to do that work.”
These offset projects mean companies delay expensive upgrades to their plants. In the case of Eskom, these offsets have to be done to coal-fired power stations that are half a century old.
“Government and companies have agreed that it is okay for factories to keep making people sick, as long as those factories pick up government’s slack,” says Mokoena.
In response to M&G questions, Sasol says independent air pollution assessments found that the company “does not cause exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards”. Alex Anderson, its spokesperson, says the petrochemical giant has an “extensive environmental monitoring network” that shares its information with the government and communities. Alongside this, it has spent R20?billion on environmental improvements at its facilities in the past decade. Anderson said: “These predominantly relate to air quality improvements.”
Although the company’s priority is to “seek solutions to reduce our own environmental footprint through onsite investments”, offsets are an “additional level to improve ambient air quality in parallel with improvements on our plants”. Undertaking projects in communities is a way to improve ambient air quality, which Anderson says “may contribute meaningfully to reducing high particulate matter levels”.
Having received postponements in March 2015, Anderson says Sasol is following “a road map to sustainable air quality improvement”. But it might not meet the final dates set by the government, saying: “It is only in cases where significant challenges to compliance exist that Sasol seeks flexibility to meeting the existing prescribed minimum emission standards.”
The human cost of delaying those upgrades is largely hidden. Companies tend not to disclose activities for which they could be sued by affected communities. Hallowes says the government is also happy not to force companies to show how many people are hospitalised as a result of air pollution. “We have a regime of purposeful ignorance around the environmental management of industrial facilities.”
But a hint of the human costs of air pollution was given by the 2014 release of a study initiated by Eskom, looking at the health burden of its Mpumalanga power stations. Released after a Promotion of Access to Information Act request by the nongovernmental Centre for Environmental Rights, it said 550 people a year died in the province as a result of air pollution. A further 117 000 were hospitalised and lived with chronic problems.
The data concluded that indoor air pollution – from burning fires and paraffin stoves – was the worst culprit. But Eskom had a hand in the pollution, it said. “Current Eskom emissions are cumulatively responsible for 17 nonaccidental mortalities per year and 661 respiratory hospital admissions.”
Another report released at the time looked at Eskom’s new Medupi power station in Limpopo, saying that, once fully operational, it would kill three people and hospitalise 300 people a year. But the research concluded that, if added, flue gas desulphurisation technology would lead to “the avoidance” of one death and 50 respiratory hospital admissions a year. Eskom has since said the technology will be delayed until 2027 because of water constraints at the plant. The Eskom documents point to the impact of other facilities – mines and factories – in both Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces but the names are redacted.
No company has ever given a straight answer to the M&G when asked whether their air pollution kills or hospitalises people. No definitive research has been done in the public sector, and private sector data has not been released.