In a modest house on a dirt street in Embalenhle, a township in the Govan Mbeki Local Municipality in Mpumalanga, Dzimadzi Masilela sits in her living room and weeps.
On the wall behind her is a picture of her only son, Liwa, who died aged 44 after a lifetime of respiratory disease.
Next door lives Rose Masondo, whose granddaughter, Mainita, died from asthma.
She was only 10-years-old.
Their lives played out in the shadow of Secunda, a vast coal-to-fuels and chemical plant run by Sasol chemicals company.
South African and international environmental groups say Sasol is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases from a single site.
The inhabitants of Emba, as the township is known, are tied to Sasol in a complicated embrace.
Secunda is responsible for a host of emissions and pollutants derived from burning coal that experts say cause illnesses – from respiratory complaints to cancer – and yet the plant supplies economic opportunities that are key to the people’s survival in a country with a 29% unemployment rate.
“Sasol, in many ways is helpful to us as a community,” said Masilela (64), who runs a crèche for the children of Sasol workers in a metal shack decorated with painted rhino and giraffes.
“The only issue is the smoke and the effect it has on our health. But what can we do about it?”
The plant sits in the heart of Mpumalanga.
It is a region where coal deposits led to Eskom erecting 11 coal-fired power stations that, together with Sasol’s plant, cause pollution across a swathe of the central and eastern parts of the country.
Coal is also used for domestic cooking in the region, further compounding the problem.
Environmental activists have sued government over the pollution caused by the two companies, urging it to act to curb emissions.
Still, Sasol doesn’t dispute that Secunda is the world’s biggest single-site emitter.
At 56.5 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, Secunda’s emissions exceed the individual totals of more than 100 countries, including Norway and Portugal, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.
A study by Palo Alto-based Gray Sky Solutions last year, estimates the plant may account for as many as 72 deaths a year.
“Worldwide studies have established linkages between air quality and human health,” Sasol said in a response to questions, including whether its pollutants caused respiratory diseases, cancer and death.
“South African air quality standards are generally well aligned with the standards applied in other countries in which we operate, especially the EU.”
Air quality standards differ from emissions limits.
However, South Africa’s limits on the emission of sulphur dioxide, one of the most dangerous pollutants generated by burning coal, are significantly weaker than a range of countries including India and China.
Permissible levels of particulate emissions are several times higher than the EU and those recommended by the World Health Organisation.
And those most directly exposed to the toxic output say they suffer the health effects.
That’s a concern made more acute by the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus in South Africa, whose symptoms include respiratory difficulties.
While there were only 62 cases as of Monday, that was more than double the previous day’s tally that prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national state of disaster.
“In the community where we are living in Emba there is a large number of people who are have sickness related to air quality,” said Fana Sibanyoni, who works with MS Environmental Projects, a local environmental group.
“People have asthma and they are dying, people have cancer,” he said.
10% carbon-reduction target
Construction of Sasol began in the 1970s as South Africa, becoming increasingly isolated due to its apartheid policies, sought to reduce its reliance on crude oil imports.
Today, the plant stretches for kilometres between the towns of Emba and Secunda.
Clouds of steam rise from the boilers and dominate the view from both towns and the local casino, Graceland, which sits on a hill above the complex.
The company says it’s acting to curb its pollution, setting a 10% carbon-reduction target by 2030 and promising more details on its plans in the “latter part of this year”.
Sasol has been given until 2025 to comply with the legal emissions limits, and it’s yet to come up with a solution for cutting sulphur-dioxide emissions beyond that date.
Last year its board refused to table a climate crisis resolution at its annual general meeting.
The pressure to invest in equipment to curb emissions comes at a time when Sasol’s finances are in free-fall.
The company’s debt has surged and its stock has plunged after billions of dollars of cost overruns at a chemical project in the US and the collapse in the oil price.
Sasol is due to address investors on how it plans to protect its balance sheet later on Tuesday.
Secunda “produces without doubt the most polluting liquid fuels in the world,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for the Centre for Energy Research and Clean Air, an independent research body.
“The most alarming part is that Sasol is delaying and opposing South Africa’s new air pollutant emissions standards that would more than halve the health impacts of industrial emissions.”
And yet Sasol is integral to South Africa’s economy and especially that of Secunda.
Together with its suppliers, the company employs 22 000 people in Secunda and surrounding areas.
It finances training programmes, pays for houses to be converted from coal to less polluting liquefied petroleum gas and sponsors community initiatives.
A banner above one of the town’s main streets reads: “Our Sasol allowed us to provide quality healthcare to our community.”
It is little consolation for Masilela.
“They do try to help us with our needs. So saying I am against it or feel bad won’t help,” she said.
“Maybe I would feel better if I had other children, but he was my only child.”