Eskom estimates 333 people likely to die every year from coal power station emissions

Eskom estimates that air pollution from its coal power stations causes 333 deaths a year, with a health cost from the mortalities of R17.6bn.

The big health danger in Eskom emissions is "particulate matter" – smoke and soot – which exceeds the legal limit at all but two of its power stations.

This was the utility’s submission to the portfolio committee on environmental affairs on Wednesday.

Eskom’s environmental manager Deidre Herbst, who spoke on the impact of Eskom’s emissions on air quality, told MPs that Eskom acknowledged that "any impact on health is not where we want to be".

Herbst said Eskom has done studies on the effects of its pollutants using the actual emissions from its coal power stations in 2017/18. 

Their model estimated that Eskom’s emissions resulted in 8.7 million people being exposed to an amount of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter, such as smoke or soot.

"This increased exposure is estimated to result in 333 cases of premature mortality attributed to air pollution from the 13 power stations in 2018."

The health costs of each death were statistically valued at R53m, which amounted to a total health cost of R17.6bn.

Gabi Mkhatshwa, from Eskom’s research section, said Eskom had 18 monitoring stations that measured emissions from the power stations.

The data showed that Eskom complied with the law regarding emissions of NO2 and SO2 at ground level, where pollutants would affect people’s health. 

However the data showed that Eskom’s emissions of particulate matter – soot and smoke –exceeded the legal limit at all its power stations except Camden and Medupi.

"Particulate matter is a big challenge. We need to focus our energy on particulate matter not on NO2, which is not a major contributor," Mkhatshwa said.

The portfolio committee called Eskom and others to make submissions in response to the recent report by Greenpeace that said satellite data had revealed that Mpumalanga had the largest NO2 pollution hotspot in the world, where Eskom’s power stations are concentrated.

However, two academics ripped into the Greenpeace report, saying although the satellite data did show an NO2 hotspot over Mpumalanga, this reflected the pollutant in an air column 10km high, and did not reflect the amount of pollutant at ground level where it could affect people’s health.

Professor Harold Annegarn from North West University dismissed the Greenpeace report as "a piece of propaganda with fatal flaws" and should be dismissed.

Annegarn said the report contained false information, but had achieved a level of success "beyond their dreams", as was evident from the fact that Parliament was holding an inquiry into the report.

Annegarn said it was not disputed that there were large emissions of NO2 and SO2 from Eskom’s power stations, but said this did not mean that people were exposed to these emissions at ground level.

"Emissions does not equal exposure, a fundamental gap in their reasoning. That is a fatal flaw in their logic…The satellite does not show emissions at ground level," he said.

Eskom has very high smoke stacks that take much of the emissions high into the atmosphere.

Greenpeace told the committee it had stated in its report that the data from the satellite was not directly comparable to ground level measurements.

Greenpeace’s Melita Steele told MPs that the data pointed to coal and vehicles as the two main sources of emissions.

Steele criticised the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) which she said had "weakened" the minimum emission standards for the SO2 pollutant from coal-fired power stations.

The DEA had changed its Air Quality Management Act in October this year.

"It significantly weakened the minimum emission standards which for new installations was originally set at 500mg/m3, but were revised upwards of 1000mg/m3. This is 30 times more than coal-fired power stations are allowed to emit in China," Steele said.

Greenpeace said this had been done in secret, without public input, and was therefore unlawful.

Steele called for this change in the law to be scrapped.

The DEA admitted to MPs that the law had been changed without public consultation.

Greenpeace said in an interview that it had been clear in the limitations of its report, and said for Annegarn to call a civil society’s credentials into question, by dismissing the report as propaganda, "goes beyond the line".

Steele said it was also missing the point.

"We can argue about columns of air, but the reality is that South Africa’s emission monitoring stations are completely inadequate.

"We are really disappointed that DEA is sitting in this room defending the polluters," Steele said.

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