Business Maverick


Government probes Sasol as possible source of sulphur stench

Government probes Sasol as possible source of sulphur stench
The smell of burning matches and rotten eggs has sparked an investigation at Sasol's Secunda operations. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries is probing Sasol’s Secunda operations on Thursday to see if they are the source of a sulphur stench that has clogged parts of Gauteng and Mpumalanga over the past week.

The department said late on Wednesday: “The stench is likely a combination of elevated levels of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide.” Sulphur dioxide is a potentially toxic gas often associated with volcanic eruptions, and there are no active volcanoes in the area. Hydrogen sulphide is highly toxic. The former emits the smell of burnt matches, the latter’s is akin to rotten eggs. Mix the two and you get a putrid stench. 

“People who are sensitive to unpleasant odours are likely to experience headaches and nausea,” it said. “While there are many sources in the area that could be contributing to these elevated levels, the district municipality’s air quality officer has been informed that the Sasol Secunda operation is experiencing stressed conditions as the facility started ramping up operations.” 

Air quality monitoring had revealed that while the levels were elevated, they “remained in compliance with ambient standards in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Mpumalanga”.

Sasol, in a statement dated Tuesday, 16 February, said: “Sasol can confirm that recently our Secunda operations in Mpumalanga have been stable with no operational incidents that have/could have resulted in an increase in sulphur emissions.”

It also noted that “sulphur ambient air quality standard limits as set by the government” had not been exceeded. 

If the department and Sasol both say the levels have not been breached, it raises the question: why was the probe launched in the first place? But something foul is in the air so the department can hardly be faulted for being proactive.

Sasol is very sensitive to its environmental record, which is under growing scrutiny since it is the second-biggest emitter, after Eskom, of the greenhouse gases linked to climate change in South Africa. On Monday, when it releases its interim financial results, its executives will no doubt face questions about the department probe.

And pollution is very topical at the moment in the wake of Wednesday’s release of a scathing report by the South African Human Rights Commission on the raw sewage befouling the Vaal River courtesy of a dramatic failure of governance by the Emfuleni Local Municipality. Whether it is in the water or the air, South Africa is dealing with serious pollution issues which have social, health and economic consequences. BM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Harro von Blottnitz says:

    Sasol and Eskom together put massive quantities of sulphur compounds into the atmosphere, close to 2 million tons; it’s just another manifestation that coal is a dirty fuel. Wonder whether the current episode of the pollution causing a stench in Gauteng has to do with the weather system in place? In other times of the year dilution of the pollution might make it less noticeable to large portions of the population?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.