Pollution kills as power plants fail

Air pollution from Eskom’s power plants kills about 333 people a year, the utility says.

In submissions to Parliament, and in its planning documents, Eskom says such deaths cost the economy about R18-billion a year. Yet the utility wants its exemption to complying with air quality laws to be extended for the third time.

Eskom has calculated this figure using the “value of a statistical life” formula adopted by governments and industries around the world.

The R18-billion does not include the cost of the people made ill by air pollution — or the effect of other forms of pollution from the coal industry that supplies Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power plants.

These plants pump excessive amounts of pollutants into the air because little maintenance is done. The government has declared the Mpumalanga Highveld, where Eskom has most of its plants, an air quality priority area.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 20 000 people a year die in South Africa as a result of air pollution from various sources, including Eskom.

The air quality legislation came into effect in 2015. But Eskom escaped the deadline by being given a five-year compliance grace period for most of its plants, even though the utility was involved in drafting the law, and knew about it for a decade.

By 2020, Eskom and other defaulting polluters are meant to comply with more stringent requirements.

But the power utility wants more extensions, and for some plants to never comply with the law.

Eskom won’t release details to the Mail & Guardian about how often its plants pump out more pollutants than they are allowed to.

But the department of environmental affairs says that, in the second quarter of last year, six power plants reported this happening on 20 occasions. In the next quarter, that number jumped to 26 times. The frequency is likely to be higher for the past six months because of Eskom’s worsening financial woes, which resulted in cuts to the maintenance of plants.

One of the worst offenders is Eskom’s largest plant — Kendal in Mpumalanga. Built in the late 1980s, its capacity of more than 4 000 megawatts makes up just under 10% of the national grid.

With the larger Medupi and Kusile plants continually delayed, keeping Kendal running is critical. Losing Kendal alone would trigger stage four load-shedding. In the past decade, it has been pushed to breaking point. Between June and September last year, it had to operate flat-out for 24 hours a day.

When maintenance isn’t done, things fall apart. This has a huge environmental cost, which becomes a health cost. Often, the machines that are meant to reduce the pollutants, such as ash dust and sulphur dioxide, instead pump these out of Kendal’s six cooling towers and two flue-gas stacks.

Eskom says: “The emission reduction system [at Kendal] was badly damaged during the industrial action between June and September [last year], when the station was required to operate at high emission levels due to the threat of load-shedding.”

The pollution from this incident is revealed in Eskom’s application for Kendal (and most of its fleet) to be exempt from the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Eskom’s exemptions in complying lapse in March, so the utility is applying for them to be extended.

These standards set a maximum level for pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and dust. Historically, factories, mines and power plants could pollute as much as they wanted to because they were built in places far from where white people lived. The standards, if implemented by polluters, will stop this.

In the Kendal application, Eskom cited a range of reasons the plant had released more pollutants than it is allowed. Most are caused by a lack of maintenance. One boiler had trouble working when the temperature dropped below 10°C.

Broken conveyor belts, which take away the ash created by burning coal, meant “high particulate matter [dust] emissions”. Poor-quality and wet coal resulted in more ash and sulphur being created, because the plant wasn’t built to deal with this kind of coal.

In its application for the nearby Hendrina power plant to be exempt from air laws, the utility says: “Eskom considers that it is not practically feasible or beneficial for South Africa to comply fully [with the new air quality requirements].”

That plant, like seven others, will be shut down by 2035, so Eskom wants all eight plants to be exempt from air pollution controls.

Most pollution happens when plants are firing up or shutting down. The machinery that traps air pollution — such as the electrostatic precipitators that catch ash dust — doesn’t work properly at this time.

Air quality laws contain a loophole for this: they don’t look at pollution caused during stop and start operations.

When the laws were drafted, Eskom had planned maintenance shutdowns.

Without regular maintenance plants break down, which causes the startups and shutdowns to become unpredictable and frequent. Entire generating units close because a silo collapses or some critical piece of infrastructure breaks down inside the steam system.

Last week, load-shedding was carried out because units at five plants weren’t working.

The utility is at pains to point out this loophole, telling the M&G that: “In terms of our licence, these are not formally considered exceedances.”

The utility says it tries to fix problems as quickly as possible, but has to do a tricky balancing act: “It is necessary to plan work such that the overall electricity system remains stable and that load-shedding is avoided.”

That threat of cutting power is Eskom’s ultimate negotiating tool. Complying with air quality laws would cost R187-billion, it says. After years of mismanagement, the utility is R400-billion in debt and argues that it cannot afford to spend money to make its plants compliant with air quality legislation.

The deaths of 333 people and an R18-billion annual health bill from air pollution is, according to Eskom’s calculations, an acceptable trade-off.

In asking for Kendal and other plants to keep rattling along until 2035, the utility says the end is in sight. Eight plants will be switched off then, dropping the amount of dust, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides by about half.

But between now and 2035 the cost of Eskom’s pollution will continue to be measured in human lives.

A little environmental victory

With Eskom in the power seat, thanks to its threat of load-shedding if it has to lower its air pollution, the department of environmental affairs has to stick to nudging the utility towards cleaning things up.

In November, it issued an administrative enforcement notice about “air quality concerns” at the Kendal plant. Eskom had to explain why pollution was so high, and what it was doing about it.

Another (little) victory was won on a tiny tributary to a small stream in Johannesburg. The utility dug up a wetland on the tributary. The department is investigating Eskom for the “possible unlawful excavation of a tributary of the Braamfontein Spruit”. A docket will then be handed over to the director of public prosecutions, which will decide whether it will prosecute.

The department has also imposed an enforcement notice on Eskom, forcing it to appoint a wetland specialist to fix the damage done.

The utility has gone ahead with that work. 

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

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