Andreas Späth

Eskom: killing us softly

2015-03-02 10:09

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Some of South Africa’s dirtiest companies don’t seem to feel the need to comply with the country’s air pollution regulations and now government has given them the right to continue to poison the air we breathe for years to come.

We’ve got pretty good laws governing the quality of our air and the type and amount of chemicals corporates are allowed to release into it. These laws, contained in the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act, include so-called minimum emission standards (MESs) that specify which pollutants factories and power plants are legally allowed to puff out through their smoke stacks and in what quantities.

Before these regulations were signed into law, some of South Africa’s most polluting companies, Eskom among them, were allowed to help write them. In other words, they negotiated the amounts of dangerous chemicals they are legally permitted to disperse into the environment. It’s the done thing these days as “corporate citizens” are deemed to have rights akin to those of actual human beings.

It turns out that these companies used the consultative law-making exercise as a cheap three-cup sidewalk trick to bamboozle us into believing that they had our best interests at heart.

For a decade, they’ve known that they would have to comply with the MESs by the first of April this year (and more strict ones five years after that), but evidently they’ve had no intention whatsoever of actually doing so, even though they were allowed to help set the rules themselves.

Instead of installing the technology to clean up their act, they’ve spend a massive amount of time, money and effort in petitioning government to give them exemptions from the law. And they’ve succeeded!

Last Tuesday, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa gifted 35 companies, including Sasol, PPC, Anglo American Platinum and Eskom, the right to exceed the MESs contained in the Air Quality Act.

Eskom, for instance, had applied for temporary exemption for 16 of its coal-fired power plants and almost all of its wishes were granted, to the utter disappointment of civil society groups like the Centre for Environmental Rights who rightfully complain about “a complete disregard for DEA’s (Department of Environmental Affairs) constitutional responsibility to protect the health of South Africans”.

Their concerns are more than valid. Air pollution is a serious issue – deadly serious, in fact:

- The World Health Organisation estimates that in 2012, approximately 7 million people died prematurely as a result of air pollution – many more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

- A scientific paper published a few months ago suggests that urban air pollution can cause changes to human DNA.

Another recent study forecasts that some 257 000 Chinese city dwellers will be killed prematurely as a result of diseases linked to air pollution in the next ten years.

- In February, US researchers found that air pollution in large cities exposes children to elevated risks of “brain inflammation and neurodegenerative changes, including Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease”.

Closer to home, two damning 2014 reports from eco activist organisation groundWork further highlight the dangers of air pollution:

‘Slow Poison: Air Pollution, Public Health and Failing Governance’, points out where and how government has failed to enforce its own air quality laws and outlines instances of non-compliance by companies.

- In ‘The Health Impact of Coal’, researcher Liziwe McDaid explains the public health repercussions of Eskom’s coal operations, pointing out the increased risk of illnesses like asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, as well as premature death.

Throughout, those most vulnerable to air pollution are inhabitants of the developing world, babies and small children, along with the rural and urban poor living near emission sources.

By granting polluting industries the right to continue to load the air we breathe with poisons, minister Molewa is dicing with death.

Eskom may well say that they can’t afford the R200 billion needed to install the equipment required to make their power plants legal. The real question is: can we as a country afford the estimated R5000 billion in health costs that will accrue if they don’t?

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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