Eskom's desire to avoid spending R42 billion reducing sulfur dioxide emissions at one of its largest power plants isn't legally feasible, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs.
In addition to getting government approval, South Africa's biggest air polluter would need to get the World Bank to agree to a breach of the terms of a $3.75 billion loan to avoid installing flue-gas desulfurisation equipment at its 4 764 megawatt Medupi coal-fired power plant.
Eskom has said that it has had initial discussions with the environmental affairs department about the matter.
"There is no process in the law currently that accommodates refusal/failure to comply with emission standards," the department said in a response to questions. It said it hasn't received a formal request from Eskom and hasn't spoken to the World Bank.
Without the equipment the plant is unlikely to be able to comply with emissions regulations because there is no alternative technology available to cut sulfur dioxide pollution to the same extent. Sulfur dioxide causes respiratory illnesses and acid rain.
The government has already been sued by environmental activists over its failure to curb pollution from Eskom and Sasol.
The power utility argues that in addition to being expensive, the installation of the equipment at Medupi would increase water consumption, necessitate the use of large quantities of limestone and produce additional carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
Eskom's proposal comes at a time when it is under increasing pressure to improve its environmental performance. The company has been ordered by the environmental ministry to sequentially shut two units of its Kendal power plant to repair broken equipment that's causing excessive particulate matter emissions and has had to close its Camden plant for three months after an ash dam reached an excessive height.
The company has ordered an internal investigation into its environmental compliance.
Fin24 reported earlier that Eskom is due to speak to the World Bank this week, citing the utility's CEO Andre de Ruyter.
Eskom declined to confirm the date of the meeting and the World Bank didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Eskom is struggling to service its debt of R454 billion.