Towns dominated by Eskom‚ Sasol show poor air quality, study finds

04 October 2017 - 09:07 By Ernest Mabuza
Steam rises at sunrise from the Lethabo Power Station, a coal-fired power station owned by state power utility ESKOM near Sasolburg, South Africa, March 2, 2016.
Steam rises at sunrise from the Lethabo Power Station, a coal-fired power station owned by state power utility ESKOM near Sasolburg, South Africa, March 2, 2016.
Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

Ten years since 31‚000 km2 of the heavily polluted Mpumalanga Highveld was declared a priority area in terms of the Air Quality Act‚ air quality in the area remained poor.

This is according to a report by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) in collaboration with Groundwork and the Highveld Environmental Justice Network‚ published this week.

In 2007‚ the then Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk declared the Mpumalanga Highveld‚ then home to about 3.6 million people‚ a “priority area” in terms of the Air Quality Act.

The minister declared the Highveld Priority Area (HPA) because‚ as the department said at the time‚ “people living and working in these areas do not enjoy air quality that is not harmful to their health and well-being”‚ as required by section 24 of the constitution.

The CER said its conclusions were that‚ a decade after the HPA’s declaration‚ air quality in the area remained poor and non-compliant with health-based national ambient air quality standards.

Major towns like eMalahleni‚ Middelburg‚ Secunda‚ Standerton‚ Edenvale‚ Boksburg and Benoni are well-known for their poor air quality.

The area is home to 12 of 15 Eskom’s coal-fired power stations‚ petrochemical plants like Sasol’s giant refinery in Secunda‚ metal smelters‚ hundreds of mines‚ fertiliser and chemical producers‚ charcoal producers and other small industrial operations.

After the declaration in 2007‚ it took more than four years before an air quality management plan was published in March 2012.

The report‚ titled Broken Promises: The Failure of the Highveld Priority Area‚ said the department’s own review of the management plan - published for comment in February this year - showed little progress.

The report said it was not known whether the air quality was actually far worse than it appeared because the HPA’s ambient air monitoring network had deteriorated since its declaration.

The HPA’s air quality management plan in 2012 listed 23 monitoring sites with available data. However‚ the department’s review in February listed just nine monitoring stations with available data.

“Only five of the nine stations publish timeous monthly reports‚ available on the South African Air Quality Information System website.”

The report said it was difficult to assess directly whether key industries had reduced emissions‚ given that neither government nor industries made key data and documents publicly available for review.

It also said negligible measures had been taken in the past 10 years to reduce dust emissions‚ particularly from mine activities‚ one of the major contributors to poor air quality.

The report said the significant air pollution meant that Highveld residents were dying prematurely‚ and suffering from respiratory and cardiac illnesses that inhibited their prosperity and well-being.

The report said immediate steps must be taken to reduce emissions of pollutants.

It said all facilities in the HPA must be required to comply with at least the minimum emission standards.

It said licensing authorities must suspend the issuing of all new emission licences in the area‚ until there is consistent compliance with all national ambient air quality standards.

“Approval and licensing of any expansion plans of existing industries must be contingent on a simultaneous substantial reduction in emissions‚” the report said.

It also said when facilities reached their scheduled end-of-life‚ particularly certain Eskom coal-fired power stations‚ air emission licences must be withdrawn‚ and decommissioning and rehabilitation enforced.

It also said dust control regulations must be amended to ensure adequate monitoring‚ measurement‚ and reduction of the significant dust emissions in the area.