/ 7 July 2023

Environmental groups appeal to minister over Kusile pollution

Kusile power station.

Two environmental NGOs have filed an appeal against the decision by the National Air Quality Officer (NAQO) to allow Eskom to postpone compliance with the minimum emissions standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2) at its Kusile coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga. 

On Wednesday, Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action and groundWork, an environmental justice campaigning organisation, lodged their appeal with Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, asking her to set aside the decision. They are represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights

Kusile is in the Highveld Priority Area, an air pollution hotspot that is home to most of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, which “continue to pollute the air to the detriment of residents”, the groups said.

To allow Eskom to make use of temporary repairs at Kusile, it has been granted permission to bypass the plant’s flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) equipment and “emit unabated SO2 and increased mercury emissions, potentially up until 31 March 2025”, the civil society groups said. 

Eskom applied for the postponement after a failure on Kusile’s west stack in October last year, which limited the power station’s ability to operate three generating units (units 1, 2 and 3). These units can each provide about 700 megawatts — in total 2 100MW — to the national grid and potentially reduce load-shedding by multiple levels. 

“Operation of the Kusile temporary stacks without FGD will increase the emission load in respect of SO2 in the Highveld Priority Area for a limited time (estimated at 13 months),” it told the Mail & Guardian earlier this year. “This will cause limited exceedances of the SO2 ambient air quality standards in a limited area around that station.”

The NGOs believe it to be a public health issue that must be properly considered with the goal of preventing adverse health impacts and deaths caused by poor air quality. 

“Load-shedding, power station malfunction and failures and other energy matters are not the fault of residents and therefore it is unconscionable to put them in this situation of a trade-off between electricity and their health.” 

Eskom welcomes decision

Eskom has, meanwhile, welcomed the NAQO’s decision granting the postponement, as well as the issuing of an updated atmospheric emission licence to Kusile. 

“The postponement granted on 5 June 2023 and the licences issued on 13 June 2023 mean that Eskom will be able to operate the three units without the use of the flue gas desulphurisation plant, which is equipped with emission-abatement technology for SO2, for a period of up to 31 March 2025 while the flue gas ducts in the permanent stack are being repaired,” it said. 

The repairs to the ducts in the permanent stack will be completed by December 2024. This comes after the failure of the unit 1 flue gas duct on 22 October last year. “The failure at unit 1 subsequently affected units 2 and 3 as the ducts for all these three units are in the same stack [chimney].” 

Eskom said the temporary stack structures for unit 3 would be completed by November 2023 and for units 1 and 2 by December 2023. 

“This will enable the return of 2 100 megawatts, further alleviating pressure on the power system and reducing load-shedding by two stages.” 

The postponement and licence are subject to several conditions, including the implementation of measures to mitigate the effects of SO2 emissions on air quality. Eskom would comply with the conditions of the minimum emission standards postponement and the atmospheric emission licence.

Disputing Eskom’s claims

But Vukani and groundWork said that although Eskom claims the temporary repair will allow it to add about 2 000MW to the grid to ease load-shedding, its “own records show that the plant was operating at less than 40% of that for the 15 months leading up to the failure of the west stack in October last year”. 

While they share the concerns about load-shedding and its effects on the economy and livelihoods, the groups question whether Eskom and the NAQO adequately evaluated the proposed solutions, “given the expected consequences and costs of the bypass”.  

SO2 is a dangerous air pollutant and the effects of the bypass will be “devastating” modelling by the Centre for Research into Energy and Clean Air (Crea) in March found. The increased emissions from Kusile are projected to result in 670 excess deaths, 3 000 asthma emergency room visits, 720 000 days of work absence and a societal health cost  of up to R24 billion. 

“In addition to the six-fold increase in SO2 emissions (an excess of 280 000 tonnes), bypassing the FGD will also see a 40% increase in the emission of mercury — a potent neurotoxin which persists in the environment for years and which is also emitted through 

the burning of coal.”

Michelle Cruywagen, the senior just energy transition and coal campaign manager at groundWork, said: “We are expecting hundreds of people to sacrifice their lives, and thousands more to experience disabilities, because of our poor energy choices. We need to shift to renewable energy as a matter of utmost urgency.”

Outdated models

Crea’s modelling, according to the appellants, shows the “deficiencies and outdated assumptions” in the health impact assessment submitted by Eskom in May to support its postponement application. 

“Eskom estimates similar SO2 emissions (300 000 tonnes), but health impacts which are almost 100 times lower — only 10 human deaths — and they do not consider the impacts of mercury emissions.”

The sensitivity of human health to SO2 emissions (337 615 tons of SO2 leading to 928 deaths), adopted in the Crea report is in “much better agreement” with multiple previous peer-reviewed studies. 

Eskom, they said, has concluded that the SO2 bypass at Kusile will “lead to insignificant impacts on human health”. But the air pollution and health impacts estimated by the utility are “unrealistically low”, due to the use of outdated methods, which underestimate pollution levels.

The air pollution and health problems were only considered in a 50km radius, whereas the effects of emissions from coal-fired power plants can extend up to hundreds of kilometres. 

“Studies have shown that [atmospheric particulate matter] can persist in the atmosphere for up to one to two weeks and can therefore travel thousands of kilometres in the atmosphere,” the appeal said. 

Bypassing the FGD dramatically increases mercury emissions. Allowing Kusile to operate without FGD could increase mercury-related deaths from 283 to 404. 

“During the period Eskom is permitted to operate Kusile … without these vital air pollution control measures, excess SO2 emissions will pollute the air, kill humans, and damage the economy.” 

Sustaining poor air quality

The postponement granted to Eskom is “more than likely to sustain the state of poor air quality and National Ambient Air Quality Standards non-compliance” in the Highveld Priority Area and the continued breach of section 24 of the Constitution. 

If the adverse, and unacceptable, effects on the environment and public health were duly considered by the NAQO, the “only reasonable and rational conclusion would be to dismiss the application as unlawful”, they affirmed. 

In the Life After Coal submission to the NAQO, several mitigation measures were suggested to “at least attempt to ameliorate the impacts being foisted on at-risk communities”, but these have not been adopted by the state in its conditions to Eskom. 

These include mobile clinics, a health management outreach programme, chronic condition treatment, as well as enhanced and accessible air quality monitoring and filtration systems for schools and public buildings.     

“The mitigation measures required of Eskom are weak and general, and there are concerns about how effective they will be,” said Ntombi Maphosa, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights. “As things currently stand, public health facilities in the area are woefully under-equipped to deal with the air quality-induced crisis in the region.”