Environmental activists vs SA government

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Being a member of South Africa’s government can never be described as boring. Fighting a plummeting GDP figure, junk status, public infighting about the mandate of the Reserve Bank (which led to the sharpest decline in the Rand in a decade), and continued suspicions about corruption, the government is now facing a class-action lawsuit brought by environmental rights groups.

Environmental activists vs SA governmentThe lawsuit was filed over air pollution in Mpumalanga, with the parties alleging that the air quality has contributed to hundreds of premature deaths. The so-called Highveld Priority Area is the area in question. It includes much of Mpumalanga and part of Gauteng, is the site of 12 coal-fired Eskom power plants, a Sasol oil refinery and coal-to-fuel plant owned by the company, and is where almost all of South Africa’s coal is mined.

“The area has been plagued with deadly air quality for decades, with the high concentration of coal-fired power plants in the province, Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant located in Secunda, and the NatRef refinery, contributing large amounts of pollution,” the parties said in a statement. They are asking the court to declare the current levels of air pollution in the area a violation of people’s Constitutional rights, and to force government to take meaningful action to implement and enforce air quality laws.

The case was filed in the Pretoria High Court by groundWork, an environmental-rights organisation, and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action. They are represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights.

They have cited five respondents, including the minister of environmental affairs Barbara Creecy, the national air quality officer and President Cyril Ramaphosa. In their papers, the parties argue that the government has violated the constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the area by failing to improve the deadly levels of air pollution there, and the fact that the Minister of Environmental Affairs designated the area as the “Highveld priority area” in 2007 acknowledged that it was an air pollution hotspot with extremely poor air quality.

They have used a new independent study to back their claims. The study, conducted by Dr. H. Andrew Gray of Gray Sky Solutions, an air pollution research consulting firm specialising in particulate matter (PM) and visibility issues, found that ambient pollution from the 14 facilities examined caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in the area in 2016. The three worst offenders were Lethabo power station (57 to 122 early deaths), Kendal power station (46 to 99 early deaths), and Kriel power station (34 to 76 early deaths).

The findings pointed to the fact that air quality in the area is some of the worst in the world, backing a report from Greenpeace last year finding the same. Cumulative emissions from the 14 facilities created acute exposures in 2016 that exceeded the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for daily or hourly averages for all pollutants, and all of the 120 so-called “sensitive sites”, mainly primarily schools and hospitals, analysed by Dr Gray exceeded the World Health Organisation’s 24-hour average SO2 guideline in 2016 due to emissions from the 14 facilities. In fact, unhealthy, acute exposures to NO2 occurred at 28 of the 120 sensitive sites in 2016, exceeding the WHO one-hour NO2 guideline concentration.

Despite this evidence, South Africa’s government does not seem to be perturbed. “The reality is that the desired improvements will not happen over a short period of time but rather progressively over time. Experience from countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America indicates that the path to reaching [the] desired air quality level takes time and effort, which can be in excess of 20 years, as has been the case in the USA,” current Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said in a statement.

This is one of the reasons that President Cyril Ramaphosa has been named in the suit, with the affidavit clarifying that “the application involves a constitutional breach and has far-reaching impacts”. “The urgent reduction of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area requires co-operative governance across a range of government departments and levels of government. This is a matter of national importance,” the affidavit states.

Should the environmental activists win this lawsuit, they will be helping hundreds of families find much-needed money to pay for medical bills. But more importantly, it will (hopefully) make the government accountable and force changes in how industrial plants are run in the country.

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.