22/02/2018 06:23 SAST | Updated 22/02/2018 10:20 SAST

Death Is In The Air: SA Is Losing The Fight Against Air Pollution

Air pollution exceedances have serious health implications, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory complications.

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What is happening in SA's fight against air pollution?

Air pollution in several parts of South Africa, and especially in the three air-pollution priority areas – the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area (VTAPA), the Highveld Priority Area (HPA), and the Waterberg-Bojanala Priority Area, declared as such in terms of the Air Quality Act (AQA) because of their high levels of air pollution – exceeds the health-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

This is despite the fact that SA's NAAQS are lenient and in many cases outdated. They are weaker than the World Health Organisation's guidelines, which themselves are outdated.

The consequence is that many South Africans are being exposed on a daily basis to dangerous levels of pollution in the air, with significant impacts on their health and wellbeing. Although many sources contribute to this pollution, industry is the largest source: with Eskom and Sasol being the country's biggest polluters.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Steam rises at sunrise from the Lethabo Thermal Power Station, an Eskom coal-burning power station near Sasolburg in the northern Free State province, March 2, 2016. South Africa's energy regulator said on Tuesday it had allowed state-owned power firm Eskom to raise tariffs by 9.4 percent in the 2016/17, less than what had been requested by the cash-strapped utility. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The department of environmental affairs (DEA) is aware of the dire state of SA's air. In its most recent "State of the Air Report", presented at the October 2017 air-quality lekgotla, the DEA concluded that "many South Africans may be breathing air that is harmful to their health and wellbeing especially in the priority areas".

Despite this, the government is failing to take decisive meaningful action to ensure that polluters comply with the law. Although the VTAPA and HPA were declared priority areas more than 11 and 10 years ago, respectively, and have air quality management plans (AQMPs) to address air pollution, ongoing noncompliance with the NAAQS persists.

In addition, in early 2015, the DEA, through the national air-quality officer (NAQO), granted wide-ranging postponements of compliance with pollution standards – called the minimum emission standards (MES) – to both Eskom and Sasol.

Although the DEA indicated that these postponements were granted to give these facilities extra time to come into compliance with the MES, both Eskom and Sasol have subsequently requested – and been granted – even further postponements of compliance. This despite the fact that all of their operations are in priority areas that are already out of compliance with NAAQS, and despite the fact that the MES were set in a multiyear, multistakeholder collaborative process.

In addition, Eskom has been explicit in its intention to apply for what it calls "rolling postponements" – reapplying for postponements (particularly in relation to the 2020 MES for sulphur dioxide) until its stations are eventually decommissioned.

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and our partners and clients have consistently pointed out that such "rolling postponements" are illegal, as exemptions from minimum standards are not legally permissible. As things stand, Eskom only intends to be 57 percent MES compliant by 2025.

What is of even greater concern, is that Eskom does not have any plans to decommission its stations. It has confirmed this to us, in response to formal requests for access to such plans.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Pylons carry electricity from a sub-station of state power utility Eskom outside Cape Town in this picture taken March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

There is also evidence that Eskom is not even complying with the more lenient emission standards.

In other words, it appears not only that Eskom does not meet the current lax emission standards in its air emission licences, but it will continue to apply to postpone compliance with the MES – in several cases until its stations are decommissioned – and it has no plans to decommission its stations.

Frustrated by the lack of progress and the ongoing and devastating health impacts related to the failure to improve air quality, the CER, in collaboration with groundWork and the Highveld Environmental Justice Network (HEJN), conducted our own analysis to determine whether the declaration of the HPA and the promulgation of its AQMP have improved air quality within the HPA to protect health; and if not, why not?

Our conclusions – contained in a report entitled "Broken Promises: The Failure of the Highveld Priority Area" – were that a decade after the HPA's declaration, air quality in the HPA remains poor and out of compliance with the NAAQS. This is confirmed by expert analysis and the DEA's own reports, including its draft review of the HPA AQMP published in February 2017, which found that emissions have not decreased significantly – if at all – over this period.

It is likely that the continued noncompliance with NAAQS is, in large part, due to the failure of key major industrial facilities to reduce their emissions either adequately or at all. The decision to grant postponements from compliance with the MES to the biggest polluters has made it significantly less likely that air pollution in the HPA will be reduced.

In short, the HPA has failed dismally in its purpose: to improve air quality so that it at least meets the NAAQS. This means that the constitutional rights of the people of the Mpumalanga Highveld to an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing are being violated every day.

The significant air pollution means that Highveld residents are dying prematurely, and suffering from respiratory and cardiac illnesses that inhibit their prosperity and wellbeing.

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"Broken Promises" set out various demands which we regard as the minimum required in order for the DEA to meet its constitutional obligations under section 24 (the environmental right) and for all authorities to meet their obligations under the AQA. Although the report focused on the HPA, the demands apply more broadly to the other priority areas.

In relation to the widespread ongoing noncompliance with NAAQS, "Broken Promises" indicated that immediate steps must be taken to reduce emissions of pollutants. Amongst other things, it stated that:

• All facilities in the HPA must be required to comply at least with the MES. Therefore, having heard representations from the facilities and affected communities, the NAQO should use her powers under AQA to consider withdrawing the postponements of compliance with MES granted to Eskom and Sasol.

She is legally empowered to "review and withdraw any postponement: (a) should ambient air quality conditions in the affected area of the plant not conform to ambient air-quality standards, and (b) following representations from the affected plant or community."

• No further postponements of compliance with MES or other licence variations that permit exceedances of licence emission standards should be allowed.

• Licensing authorities must suspend the issuing of all new air-emission licences in the HPA until there is consistent compliance with all NAAQS. Approval and licensing of any expansion plans of existing industries must be contingent on a simultaneous substantial reduction in emissions.

• When facilities reach their scheduled end of life (particularly certain Eskom coal-fired power stations), air emission licences must be withdrawn, and decommissioning and rehabilitation enforced.

Although a response to these demands was promised by the DEA by October 11, 2017, to date no response has been forthcoming.

In December 2017, the DEA promised to respond to the demands in "Broken Promises" by January 30, 2018. [This response has still not been forthcoming].

How is SA, according to your organisation, fighting air pollution?

As described above, the view of the CER, our partners and clients is that such steps as are being taken are hopelessly inadequate to ensure any meaningful improvement in SA's poor air quality. This violates constitutional rights.

In addition, the government continues to consider, and grant, applications to postpone compliance with MES, even though Eskom and Sasol – the country's two biggest polluters – have not only already received postponements, but are located in priority areas where there is already noncompliance with NAAQS. Meaningful, decisive action should be taken, for there is noncompliance with the law.

Some of the other demands of "Broken Promises" are the following:

• In recognition of the crucial importance of air quality compliance in the HPA, a comprehensive compliance monitoring and enforcement programme must be put in place by the DEA and local authorities to ensure that violations of air emission licences are detected, and enforcement action taken against those who violate licence conditions.

Such enforcement action must include suspension of particular licences for facilities, until such time as emissions comply with licence conditions.

• The institutions charged with ensuring improved air quality in the HPA must be strengthened and appropriately resourced:

  • The DEA and the Mpumalanga and Gauteng provincial governments and municipalities must demonstrate accountability for the proper management of priority areas, recognising that they have an ongoing responsibility for implementing and enforcing approved priority-area AQMPs.
  • National government, provincial government and local authorities in the HPA must allocate adequate financial and human resources to fulfil air-quality management functions, including the right tools, training, and equipment to enable the reduction of emissions and improvement of the ambient air quality.
  • To bolster resources for compliance monitoring and enforcement, the DEA must give serious consideration to requiring all existing facilities in priority areas to pay a substantial annual licensing fee, rather than simply a once-off application fee.
  • Municipalities must take urgent steps to ensure the appointment and training of suitable air-quality officers, environmental-management inspectors, the development of air quality management plans, and the incorporation of those plans into integrated development plans.
  • The departments of mineral resources and health – and other relevant departments, when appropriate – must participate in the HPA process to ensure that air pollution from mining is reduced, and human-health impacts are addressed adequately.

Toa55 via Getty Images
Air pollution from vehicle exhaust pipe on road.

Is South Africa winning the fight against air pollution?

No – no meaningful improvements in air quality have been made. More than a decade after the declaration of the HPA and VTAPA, air pollution and industrial emissions remain high.

What are some of the campaigns and efforts in place to clamp down on air pollution?

In addition to the Life After Coal Campaign and other work mentioned above, multiple organisations have campaigns to fight air pollution, particularly industrial emissions.

Some of these include the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), the HEJN, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, Greenpeace Africa, and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. VEJA has particular expertise relating to the VTAPA, and HEJN to the HPA.

Community activists in the Highveld that form part of HEJN have also been doing air quality monitoring to measure the levels of particulate matter PM2.5 in eMalahleni. This process forms part of a mass global action called Unmask My City.

Air-pollution exceedances have serious health implications, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory complications. HEJN hopes to document these exceedances and create new information, as well as put pressure on government and industries to comply with air-quality standards.