Death lurks in Eskom's murky air

Johannesburg - More than 200 environmental activists staged a protest outside a government air quality conference this week, against pollution in South Africa. Eskom was named as one of the biggest culprits. They say dirty air is killing people, making them ill and causing billions of rands in environmental and economic damage.

The demonstration took place outside the department of environmental affairs’ annual air quality governance lekgotla in Johannesburg. It coincided with the release of a damning report entitled Broken Promises: The Failure of Highveld Priority Areas (HPA), which reveals the perilous and deadly state of air in the region.

The report’s authors found that air pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations causes up to 2 239 deaths a year, broken down as follows: 1 110 deaths from coronary heart disease, 719 from strokes related to air pollution, 180 due to lower respiratory infections, 157 from lung cancer and 73 due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

However, a representative at the Eskom media desk said that: “The number of deaths calculated is exaggerated, given the actual number of deaths in South Africa per year, the causes of death as published by the South African Medical Research Council, and the contribution made by Eskom power stations relative to other sources to ambient air pollution levels.”

Eskom, the country’s biggest polluter followed by petrochemicals giant Sasol, causes a lot of illness.

According to the report, almost 1 million days are lost each year as a result of people falling ill because of poor air quality.

Nearly 4 million working days are lost a year due to “restricted activity”.

The report estimates that, each year, Eskom’s pollution causes close to 3 000 adult cases of chronic bronchitis, nearly 10 000 cases of bronchitis in children, almost 95 000 working days lost to asthma and 2 400 hospital admissions.

The total cost of the pollution associated with Eskom’s is estimated at $2.3bn (R32bn).

In response, Eskom said the calculated costs of power utility’s emissions are higher than the actual costs, since the health impact has been over-estimated.

Eskom’s Medupi power station in Limpopo, which is under construction, is expected to be the power utility’s deadliest plant yet. The authors predict 364 deaths a year as a result of the unit’s pollution.

“The number of deaths allocated per power station has been calculated incorrectly, since population distribution has been over-simplified,” Eskom said.

Environmental affairs spokesperson Albi Modise said the department had noted the report.

“The non-governmental organisations concerned have also given us their memorandum containing elements of the report. We will study the report and respond in detail later.”

“Eskom does not dispute that coal-fired power stations impact on human health...Power stations are only one of many sources of air pollution which harm health in South Africa which contribute to premature deaths,” Eskom added.

In 2007, government promised to clean up air pollution on the Highveld by declaring it a priority area under the Air Quality Act, the report says.

“A decade later, the environmental injustice remains: toxic air pollution continues to destroy the health and wellbeing of the people of the Highveld.”

The report was commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork and the Highveld Environmental Justice Network.

The centre said all three organisations had been supportive, active and vocal participants in various Highveld priority area processes for many years, with a particular focus on the Nkangala district municipality in Mpumalanga, which had significant industrial, electricity generation, mining and manufacturing activity.

Thomas Mnguni, a groundWork community activist, this week handed a memorandum of demands to the department, in a bid to ensure clean air in the Highveld priority areas. The groups expected answers within seven days of handing over the memorandum.

One irate environmental activist, Nomalizo Xhoma, programme officer at Earthlife Africa, said: “Government must introduce renewable energy from the sun. The government is not doing enough. That is why we are out here protesting to put pressure on the decision makers in this air quality lekgotla.

“In Mpumalanga, air pollution is extreme and we know that it is caused by Sasol and Eskom’s emission of deadly greenhouse gases,” Xhoma said.

Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, Barbara Thomson’s speech at the lekgotla was delivered by Tlou Ramaru, acting deputy director general: climate change and air quality. She cited plans that government had drawn up to improve the country’s air quality.

“Several ‘on-the-ground’ air quality interventions are taking place across the country. Eight of the nine provinces have air quality management plans in place to that provide a roadmap with provincial strategies towards improving ambient air quality.”

Key Findings:

  • Air quality in the HPA has not improved in the past 10 years, despite the declaration of this area and the development of the Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP); 
  • Without adequately functioning, accredited monitoring stations, there is no knowing if the air quality is actually far worse than it appears; 
  • It is difficult to assess if key industries have reduced emissions, given that neither government nor industries make data and documents publicly available; 
  • Negligible measures have been taken over the past 10 years to reduce dust emissions, particularly from mining – one of the major contributors to poor air quality on the Highveld; 
  • Little has been done to reduce air pollution in dense, low-income settlements; 
  • Neither the Nkangala district municipality nor local municipalities have enough money or trained staff to implement the HPA AQMP and to enforce the Air Quality Act; 
  • To our knowledge, the support provided by the environmental affairs department for local authorities is inadequate; and 
  • The national air quality officer’s controversial decision, in early 2015, to grant postponements from compliance with minimum emission standards under the Air Quality Act to the biggest polluters in the HPA – Eskom and Sasol – has made it significantly more difficult for air pollution in the Highveld priority areas to be reduced.


How should Eskom and Sasol compensate those affected by pollution? Should these people launch a class action?

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