NGOs sue government, Ramaphosa over Mpumalanga’s ‘deadly air’

The South African government is being taken to court for continued air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area, which spans Mpumalanga. This part of the country is home to coal-fired power plants, mines and large industries, which all pollute.

READ MORE: Government declares Highveld regions air-pollution hot spots

The Centre for Environmental Rights, representing groundWork and the Vukani Justice Movement in Action, has launched the application in the high court in Pretoria because, it says, people’s constitutional right to a clean environment is being infringed upon.

Vusi Mabaso, chairperson of Vukani, says, in a press release that came with the court action, that his health and life have hugely been affected through living in Witbank. He calls the town “one of the most polluted areas in the country”.

He adds: “Both government and industry have continuously failed to deal with the problem, irrespective of our efforts to engage with them to ensure they take steps to protect human health.”

READ MORE: Big polluters buy time on emissions

Government, through the environment, forestry and fisheries department, regulates air quality in South Africa. It sets levels for different kinds of pollutants, like sulphur dioxide. Companies then apply for a licence to pollute. That licence is granted by the district municipality where the company operates. The national environment department then inspects places that have licences, to make sure that they are polluting to legal levels.

In Mpumalanga, the majority of industrial pollution comes from industries, such as Eskom’s 12 coal-fired power plants and Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant in Secunda. The Mail & Guardian has repeatedly reported on the health impacts that this pollution has on the communities living near these industries. In 2014, the petrochemical giant went to court in an attempt to get pollution emissions standards reviewed and set aside, a move that was opposed by government and various environmental groups at the time. Sasol said it had spent billions to improve its environmental footprint but was unhappy with air conditions imposed on its existing plants.

The environmental rights centre argues that pollution from industries such as this has left many residents with chronic respiratory illnesses. The national health department does not collate these numbers, which means a comprehensive picture of the impact of air pollution on human health cannot be drawn up.

In its papers, the centre cites research done by Dr Andrew Grey, an air and health risk monitoring expert, which concluded that the air people in Mpumalanga breathe is deadly, and was responsible for between 305 and 650 early deaths in the area in 2016.

Grey has been performing research in air pollution for over 35 years. His research into Eskom’s Mpumalanga plants says that, in 2016, the 14 plants “exceeded the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for daily or hourly averages for all pollutants”.

In the press release that came with the centre’s court application, Professor Peter Orris — the head of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois — says: “The high levels of air pollution in and around the Highveld Priority Area constitute an immediate and significant public health hazard that should be remedied to save lives and allow current and future generations of South Africans to live longer and healthier.”

READ MORE: Toxins to take your breath away

Five people are cited as respondents in the court papers. They include environment, forestry and fisheries minister Barbara Creecy, the national air quality officer and President Cyril Ramaphosa. He was included, according to the papers, as air pollution is a “matter of national importance,” and because of the president’s “overall responsibility for coordinating the functions of state departments and administrations”.

The Highlands Priority Area was designated in 2007 by the minister of environmental affairs, due to the poor quality of air. The department referred to the area as a “pollution hotspot”. In 2012, the department published an air quality management plan, plotting how it would try to lower air pollution in the priority area.

But the environmental rights centre says that, even with the declaration, air quality in the area has gotten worse.

Mabaso, the chairperson of Vukani, one of the groups the centre is representing, says: “Together with groundWork, Vukani has decided to use litigation to push government to take urgent steps to deal with the high air pollution and in the interest of our health and to protect our right to clean air.”

The groups are asking the court to state that the current levels of air pollution across the priority Area are violating people’s constitutional rights and take necessary measures to finally execute the 2012 air quality management plan that the department published.

Tim Lloyd, an attorney at the centre, says: “It is high time that the South African government prioritises the human rights of the families residing in this pollution hotspot.”

In response to the court application, the environment department released a press statement saying it “notes the application lodged by Groundwork and Vukani Environment represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, and agrees there are air quality challenges in the Mpumalanga Highveld Area”.

The department went on to say it was the minister’s “preference that there is further engagement outside of a court process to find ways to satisfy the needs of citizens living in these areas for better quality air”.

In the past, the department has argued that it is working as hard as it can to improve air quality, in a political environment where it has little clout. Polluters, such as coal power plants and mines, are overseen by other departments and it is therefore tricky for the environment department to force them to do better. 

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Rene Robinson
Rene Robinson
Mail and Guardian Journalist in South Africa.
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