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Eskom deals in denial about premature deaths

2019-04-04 08:27
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Eskom is killing us. If it were committed to reducing its pollution, it would simply comply with the Minimum Emission Standards. Anything less is a betrayal of our future, writes Melita Steele.

For most people in South Africa, there is a real sense that Eskom is killing us – by hiking electricity costs to almost unbearable heights, and by creating a scenario where load shedding is so bad, that the mythical stages 5 and 6 are close to becoming reality. Nevermind the vast corruption that is becoming clear through the Zondo commission. 

Waking up to no electricity, trying to meet deadlines with no electricity, going to sleep with no electricity, trying to get home in a maze of non-functional robots: all of these have quickly become the norm. And the questions that millions of South Africans are asking is: how much more can we take from Eskom? Is this ever going to come right? 

Unfortunately, Eskom is not only making our lives much harder by metaphorically killing our quality of life – they are literally killing us. When Eskom burns coal to create electricity, massive amounts of toxic pollution are released, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter. All of these pollutants cause both illness and ultimately death. 

Numerous studies (including one commissioned by Greenpeace this year) indicate that Eskom's pollution from coal-fired power stations is killing approximately 2 000 people prematurely every year. An estimated 420 of those are in the Gauteng region, because the pollution from the coalfields in Mpumalanga and Limpopo is blown across to the economic heart of South Africa. 

When confronted with this information Eskom's stock response is denial. Denial that the crisis is as bad as people say it is. Denial that the pollution is as bad as researchers consistently say it is. Denial that they are killing as many people as claimed. 

But let us give credit where credit is due: Eskom does, at the very least, concede that air pollution from their coal-fired power stations can result in "negative health impacts" and admit that they are responsible for (the wildly inaccurate figure of) 333 deaths every year.

The air pollution situation in South Africa due to Eskom's addiction to coal is bad. Really bad. Among the worst in the world. In October last year, Greenpeace Africa released a global NO2 pollution map based on the most up-to-date satellite data, which showed that for three months of last year (June to August), Mpumalanga was the worst NO2 pollution hotspot in the world. The reason: Eskom's cluster of twelve highly polluting coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga. Eskom's response: they believe the findings are misleading. 

In March this year, Greenpeace released an updated NO2 pollution map based on 12 months of data which shows that Mpumalanga is the fourth worst NO2 pollution hotspot in the world. It is the worst NO2 power plant pollution hotspot – the other three hotspots have significant emissions from oil or transport. In addition to this, we looked at even more deadly Sulphur Dioxide pollution, and found that Mpumalanga is ranked third in the world.

I'll let that sink in. One tiny province in South Africa is a worse NO2 and SO2 pollution hotspot than can be found in the vast majority of the rest of the world. It is worse than all but one province of China. Both NO2 and SO2 are dangerous pollutants in and of themselves, and they also transform into even more dangerous particulate matter, which is so small that it can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. 

When asked for comment on the latest analysis, Eskom literally copy-pasted their previous response, once again saying that the findings are "misleading" and that they have an Emission Reduction Plan and take the impacts of air pollution seriously. 

I think it's fair to say that true leaders rise up in times of crises; Eskom literally copy-pastes. The utility is kicking canned phrases around when it tells us that they are feeling optimistic, that we shouldn't panic about load shedding, that they are taking air pollution seriously. 

Eskom went a step further by claiming that the links made by Greenpeace are "manipulative, if not untruthful" and they have rejected our conclusions out of hand. Yet it seems clear that they simply didn't bother to read our studies this time. 

The health impact assessment that estimates 2 100 premature deaths every year is based on Eskom's own emissions data, and all of the investments that they have said they will make have been taken into account. The number is in line with other studies. Perhaps what is truly manipulative is Eskom holding the country hostage through load shedding, and refusing to be accountable for the thousands of deaths that they are responsible for.

Despite knowing since at least 2013 that new Minimum Emission Standards were going to come into play from 2015, the utility is applying for a second round of postponements from complying with these standards. Their argument? The costs outweigh the benefits. In fact, an independent review of Eskom's study found that the benefits outweigh the costs by a factor of five. Eskom is making this about money, when in fact, it is about people's lives. 

The satellite data consistently shows a deep red dot in Mpumalanga because of the high levels of pollution in our atmosphere. Whatever Eskom is doing to "reduce" their pollution is not enough. These deaths and illnesses could be avoided; we do not have to use coal as the bedrock of our electricity system. Eskom is choosing to do so, and we are all paying the price. The Department of Environmental Affairs has the opportunity to do the right thing, and reject Eskom's application to postpone compliance. 

Eskom's high-level denial is a symptom of a much bigger problem: the utility has put all their eggs into a broken basket filled with coal, and now, they are in a terrifying death-spiral. Every time we switch on a light (assuming there is electricity), we are burning coal somewhere in the country, and someone, somewhere in this country is breathing the polluted air that burning coal produces. 

Eskom is killing us. If it were committed to reducing its pollution, it would simply comply with the Minimum Emission Standards. Anything less is a betrayal of our future.

- Melita Steele is a senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Africa.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    eskom  |  mpumalanga  |  air pollution  |  load shedding
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