Eskom is allowed to emit levels of pollutants that South Africas weak laws say are dangerous and get away with it (Marco Longari/AFP)
The Mail & Guardian reported last week that Eskom is asking for permission to continue with air pollution, which it admits kills 333 people a year. But the situation is far worse. An analysis done for civil society campaign Life After Coal shows that the utility is releasing pollutants far more frequently than it admits.
This finding adds to previous research, which calculates that Eskom is killing closer to 2 200 people a year. If it was held to account for this pollution, the utility would face up to R46-billion in fines and its directors up to a total of 46 000 years in jail.
But it isn’t being held to account. Instead, it escapes sanction by threatening to switch off South Africa’s electricity.
Most of the people behind these numbers live in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, where an industrial mix of coal-fired power plants and coal mines throws up dust and pollutants such as sulphur dioxide.
The World Health Organisations (WHO) says when people inhale these, the dust and gases start breaking down the lining of their lungs.
On-the-ground data is rare and the health department has not collated it to show the human cost of air pollution. The M&G has visited clinics in both provinces, where doctors say that emissions from the smokestacks looming over towns such as Kriel and Lephalale make people sick.
Eskom says its pollution kills 333 people a year. Using the value of a statistical life calculation — a global standard for calculating how much a death costs the economy in, for example, lost productivity — this costs South Africa R18-billion a year. A 2006 study done for the utility put the number it kills at 617 people a year, with 25 000 people admitted to hospital. This would cost the economy R33-billion a year.
Desktop research by civil society group groundWork estimates the number of people killed is closer to 2 200 a year. Using Eskom’s formula, this would cost the economy up to R117-billion a year.
Each of these studies relies on data from Eskom and works on the assumption that its power plants are working properly.
The utility has to submit its data to the municipalities where it operates, which give each of its plants a licence to operate. In terms of the 2010 Air Quality Act, plants must comply with the minimum emissions standards. Each time the terms of the licence are contravened, the utility can be fined up to R5-million and its directors sentenced to up to five years in jail.
The analysis done for Life After Coal paints a picture of massive pollution. In the 21 months to December 2017, it says the utility released dangerous levels of pollutants on 3 200 separate occasions. That’s five times a day. And this was before the utility’s plants started to fall apart, leading to rolling lead-shedding in February.
Eskom has rejected this number, saying it includes times when its plants were being turned on, shutting down or working in what it calls an “upset state”. The law allows the plants to emit as much pollution as they want for two to three days in these circumstances.
The loophole exists because Eskom — and other major polluters — were party to drafting the Act in the mid-2000s. Plants are also allowed to emit a higher concentration of pollutants than is regarded as safe by the WHO. For example, levels of sulphur dioxide can be 17 times higher than those allowed at a similar plant in China and still be legal.
So, in effect, the utility is allowed to emit levels of pollutants that South Africa’s weak laws say are dangerous and get away with it.
But even with this already excessive allowance, Eskom has applied to ignore air quality law at most of its plants. It first did this in 2015 and got a five-year reprieve to clean up its pollution. It is now repeating that process.
The environmental department said it will probably allow the utility to pollute until 2025.
But Eskom wants more, saying complying with the law will cost it R187-billion, so its eight most polluting plants should be exempt until they are shut down by 2035 at the latest.
At that point, some of those plants will have released higher-than-accepted levels of pollutants for nearly half their lives.
In its application for the Hendrina power plant to be exempt, it says: “Eskom considers that it is not practically feasible or beneficial for South Africa to comply fully [with the new air quality requirements].”
Eskom also wants permission for the new Medupi power station to emit dangerous levels of pollutants, even though it was built after the utility knew it would have to comply with new air quality laws.
Using a rough calculation, based on the finding that Eskom released unsafe levels of pollution 3 200 times in 21 months, the utility could have done so more than 9 000 times in the five years that it has been given permission to break the law.
The environmental department says, in the middle six months of the past year, Eskom admitted to breaking the law on just 46 different occasions.
It is not being fined for this and the people running the utility have faced no consequences for decisions that continue to kill people.