Polluter of the Year: Eskom’s coal-fired power stations spew toxic gases across the land

Polluter of the Year: Eskom’s coal-fired power stations spew toxic gases across the land
The Eskom Holdings Kendal coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga, South Africa, 5 May 2023. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The air quality around the energy utility’s coal-fired power stations is dismal, falling way below national and international standards.

Surpassing Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe this year, Eskom has been voted the Polluter of the Year by Our Burning Planet’s readers.

It’s not hard to see why: South Africa’s state-owned energy utility runs an aged, pollutive and dysfunctional fleet of planet-warming, coal-fired power plants to generate most of the country’s electricity.

In 2021, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) found that Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power plants emitted 1.6 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide (SO₂) a year, making it the largest emitter of health-harming SO₂ globally.

Read more in Daily Maverick: People of the Year 2023: The awesome, awful and truly evil

This emission level is more than the entire power sector of the EU and US, or the US and China, combined. Put differently, Eskom’s sulphur dioxide emissions in 2019 exceeded those from the power sectors of each of the world’s three largest economies.

The emissions contribute to high levels of ambient air pollution and are estimated to be responsible for about 2,200 deaths annually.

This year, Eskom has been lobbying the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment for exemptions from clean air regulations.

Bloomberg reported in March that Eskom would temporarily be allowed to bypass the flue-gas desulphurisation unit, which cuts SO₂ emissions by as much as 99%, at three units at its Kusile power station while it conducted repairs at the plant, which had been affected by a chimney collapse.

Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy said at the time that she was “aware of the health and associated impacts of exposure to sulphur dioxide emissions, particularly on communities in close proximity to coal-fired power stations”.

More recently, another Crea report found that if the decommissioning of South Africa’s coal plants only begins in 2030 or later, it will cause a projected 15,300 excess air pollution-related deaths and economic costs of R345-billion.

Daily Maverick reported that South Africa’s air pollution hot spots – where air quality does not meet (already inadequate) national air quality standards – include the Mpumalanga Highveld, the Vaal Triangle, the Waterberg district in Limpopo and the Bojanala district in North West.

Crea said Eskom’s fleet of coal-fired power stations – of which 12 are located in Mpumalanga and two in Limpopo – is responsible for most of the air pollution.

The high court’s “Deadly Air” judgment in March 2022 confirmed that air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area breached the constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing, and that the government must hold big polluters to account.

Ntombi-Zodwa Maphosa, an attorney with the climate change and pollution programme at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said of this report: “A decision made by the government that fails to protect people from serious known health risks constitutes a violation of people’s right to life and to an environment not harmful to their health and wellbeing.”

Daily Maverick also reported that for Thomas Mnguni, a campaigner for GroundWork living in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, the concern is not the cost to the economy, but the quality of life that he, his children and the community have.

“I have two kids; a boy and a girl. Somewhere around 2010, I had to regularly take my boy to a doctor because of his asthma symptoms. I’ve just indicated to him that he must stop running 800m because he doesn’t have the breath to run 800m,” Mnguni said.

“His sister has been officially told by the school that she needs to go and check for asthma because she can’t run. So she’s only been involved in athletic events such as high jump because she can no longer run.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Sorry :

    1. If we don’t run these foul coal stations we run diesel or Eskom runs diesel. Both pollute more than coal. Run nothing? Economic ruin with 100 times the human effect.

    2. Nobody within the wind shadow of any coal station can claim to be surprised. Given how stations were site-selected, most of the wind shadow is anyways coal mines. Shut station, economic ruin. Put that out for a local poll and see what happens.

  • peter selwaski says:

    Nuclear does not emit gases.

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

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