Campaigners take legal action against utility over its ‘unconstitutional’ bid to bypass air pollution laws
Environmental organisations are vehemently opposing power utility Eskom’s application to delay or avoid meeting pollution limits emitted from its coal-powered electricity-generating stations.
The Life After Coal campaign – consisting of groundWork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) – have accused Eskom of seeking permission to circumvent South Africa’s air pollution laws.
The power utility has applied for permission not to meet the country’s minimum emission standards.
Eskom submitted its application to the department of environment, forestry and fisheries on November 29, in terms of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, 2004.
It requested permission to suspend the implementation of the minimum emission standards for its Acacia and Port Rex peaking gas power stations, and its Grootvlei, Matimba and Medupi coal power stations.
Eskom submitted its application after an international study, released last year, found that its coal-powered stations emitted 3 200 times more pollution than they should.
US coal plant expert Ranajit Sahu was commissioned by Life After Coal to conduct the research.
In his 21-month study, which ended in December 2017, Sahu found that Eskom exceeded limits, despite being granted lower licence conditions on pollution.
Research shows that emissions from power stations cause people living near them to suffer from various respiratory diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis.
In addition, statistics show that polluted air from Eskom’s power stations accounts for 2 200 premature deaths annually.
Sahu found that illness cost the country more than R33 billion annually through hospital admissions and lost working days.
He stated in his report that Eskom had exceeded its limits on all three regulated pollutants for coal plants: sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter, including soot and ash.
Plants that emitted the highest pollution were Grootvlei in Mpumalanga, which at times exceeded the limit by as much as 15 times; Kriel, also in Mpumalanga, which belched six times the limit; and Duvha (Mpumalanga) and Lethabo (Free State), both belching five times the limit.
Robyn Hugo, head of the Pollution and Climate Change Programme at the CER, said: “Medupi and Matimba, like all of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, are located in an air quality priority area. In the Waterberg-Bojanala Priority Area, air pollution is higher than permitted by South Africa’s weak air quality standards, resulting in serious effects on the health and wellbeing of local residents.”
Hugo added that the country could generate cheaper and cleaner renewable energy instead of using coal.
The CER approached the courts last year to get an order that government was violating people’s constitutional right to clean air if it did not implement the Air Quality Management Plan, particularly in Mpumalanga’s Highveld region, where most coal power stations are situated.
The CER believes that Eskom’s bid not to comply is problematic because it would violate the National Environmental Management Act, 1998; the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, 2004; the National Framework for Air Quality Management, 2017; and the Constitution.
The CER also said Eskom’s bid did not provide sufficient explanation for its delay in complying with the minimum emission standards.
However, Eskom said that its application was appropriate for the following reasons:
- For Acacia and Port Rex, the suspensions and request for alternative limits would have a limited effect on air quality, given the very low use of the stations (generally less than one day a year), the intent to close the stations by 2030 and the cost of the upgrades required to enable compliance – estimated at more than R100 million;
- Compliance upgrades at Grootvlei would cost more than R11 billion, costly for a station scheduled for decommissioning by no later than 2030.
And, given the limited effect on air quality, full compliance with the minimum emission standards was deemed to be inappropriate;
- Medupi would comply with most of the required emission limits, but the flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) project – which is required to support compliance with the sulphur dioxide limits – was behind schedule.
Eskom was requesting alternative limits until the project’s completion by 2030, and thereafter, until decommissioning.
- In order to support meeting the sulphur dioxide standards in particular, FGD would be required at Matimba.
Given the limited effect on air quality, and considering the significant volumes of water required, the additional waste produced and a cost of between R15 billion and R26 billion for FGD, Eskom did not believe that installing the technology was appropriate for Matimba.
Eskom was thus requesting an alternative limit for sulphur dioxide for the station.
The Air Quality Act, which established minimum emission standards in terms of Section 21 is national legislation with legal provisions that are applicable to all existing and new plants. The Section 21 notice, published first in 2010, has legal provisions that enable transitional measures for facilities that were already in existence in 2010 when the same law was first promulgated.
There are two sets of provisions/categories:
1. The suspensions of compliance with new plant standards for existing plants who will decommission by April 1 2030; and
2. The postponement of compliance timeframes for existing plants who need more time to retrofit their facilities and reach compliance with new plant standards in no later than April 1 2025.
“These provisions are there to enable the department to give additional time to existing plants, such as Eskom and many others to retrofit their facilities and invest towards compliance and to ensure that there is some measure of emission control for those plants that are planning to decommission their facilities by 2030,” said Albi Modise, chief director of communications for the department of environmental affairs.
“Eskom made applications for these two categories mentioned above. At this stage no decision has been made on whether to grant permission in terms of either categories.
“A decision can only be made once Eskom has submitted all supplementary information required.”
- This article was updated on February 20 to include the response from the department of environmental affairs.