/ 16 March 2023

Eskom’s Kusile pollution rules exemption to ease blackouts threatens health

Eskom expects units from Kusile and Tutuka power stations to be back online in November

Allowing Eskom to bypass sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution control at its Kusile power station will harm the health of people living in the airshed of the power station in Delmas, Mpumalanga, said the Life After Coal campaign.

It was reacting to an announcement on Wednesday by Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy that Kusile has been granted an exemption, subject to certain strict conditions, from the “lengthy process” required to amend its atmospheric emission licence, to reduce load-shedding.

Creecy said the exemption, in terms of section 59 of the Air Quality Act, was granted on 14 March in response to an application she had received from Eskom about Kusile. It had been brought because of “the urgent need to alleviate the electricity crisis in the country”. 

“Eskom’s request pertains to a temporary solution to restore lost generation capacity at its Kusile power station while a damaged stack undergoes repairs, which are due for completion in December 2024. In the interim, Eskom plans to construct the temporary stacks by November 2023, which it anticipates will allow the resumption of generation capacity of 2100 megawatts, which will reduce the country’s exposure to load-shedding by two levels.”

The temporary solution proposed for Kusile envisages that Eskom will operate the temporary stacks without the use of the flue gas delsuphurisation mechanism for 13 months, Creecy said. “This is likely to result in increased SO2 emissions during this period, in excess of the current applicable limit contained in Kusile’s atmospheric emission licence.”

Flue gas desulphurisation is the process of removing sulphur compounds from the exhaust emissions of fossil-fuel powered stations.

‘Grave health implications’

Life After Coal, a joint campaign by the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, said in a statement that Creecy’s decision to allow Eskom an expedited process to apply for an exemption from the Air Quality Act is in relation to Eskom’s proposal to get three units at Kusile, which malfunctioned in October 2022, back into operation — doing so by bypassing the SO2 control.

SO2 is a priority pollutant under the Air Quality Act, an act “for which community people living with the effects of industrial pollution fought hard between 1994 and 2004”. 

It causes various kinds of ill-health, including respiratory, chronic wheeze, decline in lung function, upper respiratory irritation and bronchoconstriction and chronic exposure causing premature death.

“If Kusile operates at its pre-stack collapse production rates of about 33% [which is the output Kusile was producing prior to the stack malfunction] for 13 months as proposed, it is projected that 195 people will die from the SO2 pollution. If it operates at 100% for 13 months, 492 people are projected to die.”

If the bypass stack runs for three years, 540 to 1 362 people are projected to die from the SO2 pollution, depending on the production rate at Kusile, it said. “This is over and above the existing public health disaster on the Mpumalanga Highveld where particulate matter from coal-fired power already kills more than 2 200 people per year.”

It is not clear yet whether Eskom has or is proposing to conduct a health impact study of its proposed plan, it said.

‘Difficult decision’

Creecy said she is aware of the well-documented socio-economic effects of load-shedding, which have had far reaching consequences for South Africans. “I am equally aware of the health and associated impacts of exposure to sulphur dioxide emissions, particularly on communities in close proximity to coal-fired power stations. In the light of the competing factors, I have been called on to make an extraordinarily difficult decision.”

She said Eskom will now need to apply to the national air quality officer for a once-off postponement with the compliance timeframes for minimum emission standards (MES) for new plants. The once-off postponement can only be valid until 31 March 2025, in terms of the applicable regulations.

The exemption is subject to several conditions, Creecy said. These include that Eskom must issue a public notice in two national newspapers, explaining reasons for their application; that Eskom must conduct a public participation process subject to a curtailed timeframe of 14 days; and that Eskom must account to Creecy and the portfolio committee on forestry, fisheries and the environment on the progress of its repair to the west stack. 

Eskom, too, must undertake measures to “mitigate” against the exposure of its employees and surrounding communities to harm, “which, at a minimum, must include independent health screenings and referral to appropriate public health facilities for treatment where necessary”. 

‘Dumping SO2’

The campaign questioned whether a decision to allow Eskom to “dump SO2 from unabated polluting emissions into the atmosphere” would meet the requirements of the Constitution, which places an obligation on the state to give immediate effect to the right to an environment that is not harmful to health and wellbeing — as confirmed by the Deadly Air court judgment in March 2022. Further uncontrolled pollution will “significantly exacerbate” this constitutional violation.

On the mitigation measures announced by Creecy on SO2 exposure, the campaign said that “intentionally making people sick and then referring them to the doctor for treatment would be a shocking violation of human rights, especially considering the inadequate public healthcare system”. It noted, too, how the public participation process of 14 days “is not an adequate period to conduct proper consultation as required by law”.

In a letter sent to Creecy last week, the campaign raised its concerns about media reports of Eskom’s plans to bypass the pollution control at Kusile. It included an initial assessment of the potential health effects of such a proposed decision, by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. 

The letter questioned the accuracy of the claim that the proposed stack bypass will result in 2 160 megawatts of generating capacity, based on the past performance at Kusile. “Prior to the stack failure during 2022, it appears that the plant only produced at approximately 33% of its capacity equivalent to 700MW of capacity, less than one stage of load-shedding.”

The letter noted how, according to Eskom, fully repairing the malfunctioning stacks will take until December 2024. “The temporary bypass will allegedly enable the plant to return to service ‘13 months earlier’ implying a date of November 2023.  

“This implies that Eskom proposes to incur the full cost of the temporary bypass in exchange for a possible 13 months of production. With the low past performance of the plant around 33%, the bypass equipment will be redundant as soon as the original stack is repaired and the full system returned to service 

“There is the very real risk — we will go as far as to say likelihood — that the bypass construction will take longer than by the end of November 2023 and will cost much more than whatever figure Eskom quotes as the estimated cost.”

An alternative proposal is that the Kusile flue gas delsuphurisation malfunction is seen as an “opportunity to accelerate the coal phaseout”. 

The money should rather be spent on solar photovoltaic or wind installations at scales ranging from household and commercial, with subsidies, through to large scale Eskom solar, which could be done quickly on Eskom land and does not require regulatory approvals in the case of rooftop solar, it said.