Andreas Späth

Award-winning film exposes dark legacy of coal in SA

2015-08-03 11:55

Andreas Wilson-Späth

South Africans like myself, who’ve always had ready access to cheap electricity and who are currently (and rightfully) despairing at the frustrating and debilitating effects Eskom’s load shedding balls-up is having on their lives would do well to spend a little time to consider an equally serious crisis which plagues the foundation of our national electricity supply system – the fact that it’s built on dirty coal.

A great way of gaining some perspective on this is watching an award-winning half-hour documentary film produced for local environmental group groundWork and their international partners Friends of the Earth International which was released for free online viewing last week.

South Africa’s entire economy – along with the wealth of a whole lot of people and companies – has been built on cut-price electric power generated by burning abundant supplies of easily mined coal. But at what cost to the land, air, water and the health of its people? That’s the question explored in the film The Bliss of Ignorance.

At first glance, there seems to be a fairly simple linear equation here: coal = electricity = industrial growth = money = wealth = happy people. “But that’s not how it works,” say Dr Victor Munnik from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Along its entire lifecycle the coal-energy-complex is beset by nasty problems. It consumes and pollutes huge amounts of water and is responsible for producing acid mine drainage, some of which has tainted private and municipal drinking water supplies.

From the dust raised by mining, processing and transportation to the fumes spewed out of smoke stacks when coal is burned in power plants, it degrades the environment and people’s health.

Emissions of carbon dioxide from burning coal contribute to global warming and climate change, and tiny bits of particulate matter released into the air make their way into the lungs and bloodstreams of people living in the vicinity, costing the health system billions of rands in treating long-term respiratory illnesses like asthma as well as cancer and cardiovascular diseases every year. Air pollution linked to coal-fired power stations is estimated to kill 2 200 South Africans annually.

While big companies continue to benefit from preferentially low energy prices, poor people in settlements near coal mines and power plants who can’t afford access to sufficient electricity and have to supplement their heating and cooking needs by burning coal in their homes suffer disproportionately by being exposed to dangerous air pollution both in and outdoors.

The Bliss of Ignorance focuses on Mpumalanga, home to 12 gigantic Eskom coal-fired power stations which have turned its Highveld air into among the most polluted in the world. And all of this when Eskom has been granted the right to not comply with legal emission standards for five more years because the costs required to clean up their act are apparently too high. In effect, government is allowing the company to break the law by polluting the air above legal limits for another five years. If that’s not putting corporate profits before people’s health I don’t know what is.

Watching the film raised many questions for me, but two in particular stand out:

To what extend are well-off South Africans like myself, who think very little about the impacts of the electricity they consume every day, complicit in the coal-induced sickness and death of thousands of our compatriots?

Why on earth are our government and Eskom still so committed to a coal-based energy policy, constructing not one but two monster new coal power stations, when we should be investing much, much more in cleaner, renewable sources of energy?

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

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