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Eskom lied to hide its deadly levels of pollution

COMMENT

Eskom lied about the levels of its pollution, according to a compliance notice issued by the environment department to the utility’s Kendal power plant.

Kendal is crucial to Eskom. It is the biggest and most stable plant in the fleet. In August 2018, parts of the 4100-megawatt plant in Mpumalanga were broken during industrial action by employees. Air pollution controls were hit hard. This resulted in excessive pollution — black plumes pumped into the already dirty air of that province.

Eskom says its air pollution kills more than 300 people a year. Other estimates put it at 10 times that. Tens of thousands of people go to hospital with respiratory problems.

Air quality laws, which came into effect in 2015 and which the utility was part of drafting, were meant to force companies to lower their levels of pollution. On Kendal, Eskom promised it was reducing the plant’s pollution. But the compliance notice says otherwise. Obtained through a Promotion of Access to Information Act request by the Centre for Environmental Rights, its details were shared by energy expert Chris Yelland.

The notice demanded that Eskom shut down two units at Kendal and give the department a plan of what it should do to reduce pollution.

In the notice, the department says Kendal’s Unit 1 has been operating at 13 times the legal limit — despite Eskom saying that it had been mended. It then says the data presented for Unit 5 was a “gross misrepresentation of facts” and that the utility deliberately used the wrong methodology to calculate its emissions. This, it says, “puts the entire data presented and the claimed [emission] reductions in question”.

The department says “none of the commitments made/action plans submitted to the department have resulted in any of the units being in compliance” and concludes that it “does not believe that the current action plans will result in compliance”.

Compliance notices are the government playing nice. Imagine being caught for breaking the law and then being given a chance to change your behaviour, rather than getting a fine or being sent to jail. In this case, Eskom got caught, was asked to do the right thing and then didn’t take action but said it had.

How this goes from here is crucial. Eskom is responsible for 40% of South Africa’s carbon emissions. It’s the biggest polluter in Africa. In the past, it has promised action but then threatened to shut down the grid. It resorted to blackmail and threatened our future. And then lied.

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

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