Doubling SO2 pollution standards would have deadly consequences for Highveld communities

11 July 2019 - A new study has shown that the doubling of air pollution standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2), proposed by the previous Environment Minister Nomvula Mokonyane in May 2019, would cause thousands of deaths on the Highveld.

The study conducted by Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at Greenpeace Global Air Pollution Unit, shows that, over time, an estimated 3,300 premature deaths would be caused by doubling the SO2 standard, as a result of increased risk of lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke, and increased risk of death from diabetes – with approximately 1,000 of these premature deaths estimated in Gauteng. The studies also show profound health impacts on children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those already suffering from asthma, heart, and lung disease.

In October 2018, former Minister Mokonyane published the doubled SO2 minimum emission standard (MES) limit without having invited public comment, as the Air Quality Act requires. In April 2019, environmental justice group groundWork was forced to institute to set aside the unlawful notice. In May 2019, the Minister withdrew the unlawful notice and gave the public 30 days to comment on the same proposal to weaken the SO2 standard.

Last month, the Life After Coal Campaign (LAC), along with 4 community-based organisations, submitted detailed and comprehensive objections to the proposal.

From the outset, LAC and the community-based organisations have vigorously objected to the Department of Environmental Affairs’ proposal to weaken the MES limit for SO2, a highly toxic pollutant that is known to cause significant harm to human health and the environment.

This amendment would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020, including Eskom and Sasol, South Africa’s biggest emitters of SO2. Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and Sasol’s coal boilers are all located in South Africa’s air pollution priority areas - the Highveld Priority Area, the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area, and the Waterberg-Bojanala Priority Area – declared as such due to the already-deadly levels of air pollution in these areas.

The LAC and its community-based partners argue that it would be plainly unlawful for government to weaken the MES, which were set more than 9 years ago to reduce the detrimental impacts caused by air pollutants such as SO2.

Doubling the already-lax SO2 MES, would make these approximately 10 times weaker than the equivalent standard in India and 28 times weaker than the equivalent standard in China. If the Department does weaken the limit, these organisations contend that this would be a clear violation of South Africa’s air quality laws and of the Constitution, making it unlawful and invalid.

The objections detail the profound health impacts caused by SO2, especially for vulnerable individuals, including children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those suffering from asthma, heart, and lung disease. Studies have linked SO2 to low birth weight in infants and an increased risk for gestational diabetes mellitus, stillbirths, and pre-term births.

In fact, Myllyvirta’s study, which focuses only on the health impacts as a consequence of doubling the limit for SO2 emissions from power plants in South Africa, estimates that 950 of the 3,300 premature deaths over the years to come, will be due to increased risk of lower respiratory infections, including in young children.

Not only does exposure to SO2 pollution cause serious health impacts, but SO2 emissions also contribute to the secondary formation of a pollutant called fine particulate matter (PM2.5), with expert research showing that it is causally linked to a number of severe conditions, including lung cancer. As attorney and head of the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) Pollution & Climate Change Programme, Robyn Hugo, points out, “by reducing exposure to these pollutants, the MES exist to protect guaranteed Constitutional rights – weakening the SO2 limit undermines this legitimate purpose and cannot be justified”.

Robby Mokgalaka, LAC partner groundWork's Coal Campaign Manager, stresses that “the largest source of the air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area comes from Eskom’s existing fleet of 12 coal-fired power stations and Sasol’s Synfuels (coal-to-liquid) plant – the high levels of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area will only continue if government weakens the SO2 limit, entrenching the injustice experienced by affected communities in this area, especially very young children.”

Thomas Mnguni, groundWork's Community Campaigner in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, highlights that ”the Department has itself acknowledged that, since the publication of the MES in 2010, sufficient time has been afforded to industry, including Eskom and Sasol, to achieve compliance with the various limits taking effect in April 2020. Our objections also demonstrate that the technology to ensure compliance is readily available. What this means is that these facilities must prepare to comply with the current SO2 MES that apply from April 2020, or be decommissioned in a lawful, just and inclusive manner.”


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The Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle campaign is a joint campaign by the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, which aims to: discourage the development of new coal-fired power stations and mines; reduce emissions from existing coal infrastructure and encourage a coal phase-out; and enable a just transition to sustainable energy systems for the people.