Eskom’s latest bid to continue deadly pollution strongly contested
18 September 2018 - Five of South Africa’s largest environmental justice organisations have come out strongly against Eskom’s further round of multiple applications to postpone compliance with air pollution standards. Allowing Eskom to continue with its pollution will mean that at least 2200 people in affected areas will die premature deaths every year as a result of exposure to this pollution.
Although Eskom was already granted widespread postponements from compliance with the so-called minimum emission standards (MES) under the Air Quality Act in early 2015, it has made little effort to ensure that it can comply timeously with South Africa’s weak MES.
The organisations are: the Life after Coal campaign – consisting of Earthlife Africa (ELA), groundWork, and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) – and two environmental justice networks made up of community organisations based in the areas affected by Eskom’s pollution: the Highveld Environmental Justice Network (HEJN), and the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA).
The postponement applications include 11 coal-fired power stations in the heavily-polluted Highveld Priority Area (HPA) in Mpumalanga, declared an air pollution hotspot almost 11 years ago. Eskom also seeks postponements for Lethabo station, located in the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area (VTAPA) declared 12 years ago, and has sought additional postponements for its Medupi and Matimba stations located in the Waterberg-Bojanala Priority Area (WBPA), declared in 2012.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA’s) own reports, none of the priority areas comply with South Africa’s already outdated national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).
CER attorney Timothy Lloyd says: “This is the fourth time that Eskom has applied more time to meet the MES. This despite the fact that all of its coal-fired power stations fall within priority areas, in which residents are already being exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. Not only has Eskom failed to meet the prescribed requirements for seeking postponements, but granting MES postponements will clearly – and unacceptably – exacerbate air pollution in priority areas.”
Despite participating in setting the MES in April 2010, Eskom provides inadequate explanations for its failure to plan to meet the standards, which first came into force in April 2015, with stricter MES to apply from April 2020. It appears from its background information document that, even by 2030, 13 coal-fired power stations will not comply with the 2020 MES for sulphur dioxide (SO2), 8 stations will not meet these standards for oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and 5 coal-fired power stations will not comply with the 2020 MES for particulate matter (PM).
“We have been warning the government since 2013 that Eskom intends to apply for “rolling” postponements – reapplying every 5 years – until its older fleet of coal-fired power stations is eventually decommissioned. This application makes clear that has been their illegal plan all along,” says Thomas Mnguni, Community Campaigner at groundWork.
Life After Coal, HEJN, and VEJA have reiterated the devastating health risks from Eskom’s stations, confirmed by various studies, including Eskom’s own reports. In 2016, UK-based air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland assessed the health impacts and associated economic costs of current emissions of just one type of pollutant from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations (PM2.5), finding that Eskom emissions result in more than 2,200 equivalent attributable deaths every year, and cause thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually. These impacts are calculated to cost South Africa more than R35 billion (USD2,37 billion) annually.
This severe air pollution perpetuates the environmental injustice in South Africa. “Living in Middelburg, I see first-hand the health impacts of air pollution on my family and the communities around me. The DEA must refuse the postponement applications as it is well aware that Eskom is responsible for the overwhelming majority of SO2 and NOx emissions – and their health impacts – in the HPA. Eskom is seeking a licence to kill,” says Mnguni.
The lack of improvement of the air quality in the HPA more than a decade later, and the negative health impacts of this pollution are detailed in the Broken Promises Report, released in October 2017. The recommendations made in the report include that no more MES postponements should be granted or air permits issued in priority areas, until such time as the air quality improves so that there is consistent compliance with NAAQS. Almost a year later, the DEA has failed to respond to this report, and civil society and community organisations are planning to approach the High Court to challenge these ongoing violations of Constitutional rights.
Civil society and affected community organisations call on the DEA’s National Air Quality Officer to reject Eskom’s latest applications. Where stations cannot meet MES, they should not operate and/or their decommissioning dates expedited. These organisations also call for closures of coal-fired power stations (and coal mines) in a way that facilitates a just energy transition, which includes the need for Eskom to actively plan, together with its workers, for a fair transition to renewable energy, rather than risk stranding the workforce, along with redundant coal-fired plants.
In addition, we again call upon members of the public who are concerned about their health, and the health of their families, to participate in these postponement applications and vigorously defend our right to a healthy environment.