“Unevenness is a defining feature of pollution… Unevenness is not only a description of pollution and its harms, not only a side eﬀect, and not remotely an accident: unevenness is an accomplishment of pollution. It is its goal.” Max Liboiron, Pollution is Colonialism, 2021.
It is a little over 15 months since the high court in Pretoria confirmed in a judgment that the poor air quality over much of the Mpumalanga Highveld is a breach of residents’ constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being.
This ruling in the so-called Deadly Air case brought a glimmer of hope to communities that have for decades been treated as sacrifice zones for the nation’s reliance on coal-fired electricity.
Instead of things getting better, they’re about to get worse. The air is about to get even deadlier as Eskom prepares to bypass the sulphur dioxide (SO2) abatement equipment at its beleaguered Kusile plant.
Licence to kill
On 5 June 2023, the National Air Quality Officer (NAQO) granted Eskom’s application to postpone compliance with the Minimum Emissions Standards for deadly pollutants. Eskom claims that it needs to bypass the flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) equipment at generation units 1, 2 and 3, and utilise a temporary stack while it repairs the permanent West Stack (containing the FGD equipment) which failed in October 2022.
In case the words “sacrifice” and “kill” sound overly dramatic, a report by the Centre for Research into Energy and Clean Air (Crea) has modelled the health impacts of the bypass.
An additional 674 human beings are projected to die if the bypass is operational from December 2023 until the end of the postponement period in March 2025. The deaths are attributed to an increased risk of stroke, ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lower respiratory infections.
A health and economic catastrophe
The report also projects other excess health impacts of the bypass, including a projected 3,000 asthma emergency room visits, 1,400 pre-term births, 720,000 days of work absence and 900 years lived with disability due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and stroke. The economic costs are projected to be in the order of R16.8-billion.
These are the impacts of unabated SO2 emissions from only one plant. This latest chapter in the Kusile story is taking place against a backdrop of Eskom appealing against decisions by the NAQO to compel compliance with pollution limits at nine other coal-fired plants, measures it says it simply cannot afford to take.
In an earlier report by Crea, it was found that if Eskom were to comply with the limits, 34,400 deaths would be avoided and R620-billion would be saved from now until the end-of-life of the plants.
Reducing rolling blackouts? At what cost?
The reason put forward by Eskom to motivate the bypass, and the reason the NAQO cited as support for their decision, is that the measure will supposedly reduce rolling blackouts by two stages while the West Stack is being repaired.
However, the claim that 2,100MW will be added to the grid bears questioning. According to Eskom’s own records, Kusile was operating at less than 40% of its nominal output for the 15 months prior to the stack failure.
It has been reported that, as of June this year, Eskom had already spent R250-million on the temporary repair, and this was likely to escalate. Despite numerous requests, the utility has refused to provide any detail of the costs of the permanent repair. All of this against the backdrop where, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa last year, the R161-billion Kusile plant will need an additional R14-billion to complete.
The question therefore should be: for how much longer are we still going to pour money into an outdated electricity generation model that is unreliable, expensive and destroys people’s lives and health? Another report released last year showed that if we had an additional 5GW of wind and solar in 2021, 96% of rolling blackouts would have been averted.
A missed opportunity
However, let us return to the sacrificed. If we as a society are going to demand — it was not a request, the people living adjacent to Kusile were not able to say no — that some people pay the ultimate price for our electricity choices, should we not at least try, with everything in our power, to soften the blow?
The NAQO has the power to set conditions for the bypass. At this stage, Eskom is effectively only obliged to organise health screenings for community members (the details of which are unspecified and unknown) and thereafter refer them to public health facilities as necessary.
We know that residents in the area receive precious little in the way of meaningful medical support from local clinics, and hospitals are poorly equipped to diagnose and treat the plethora of acute and chronic conditions that arise from the pollution.
In our engagement with Eskom and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE, the home of the NAQO) we suggested relatively modest mitigation measures which could at least begin to try and ameliorate the catastrophic conditions that are intensifying.
These include mobile clinics, a healthcare outreach programme, a chronic condition treatment programme and filtration for schools and public buildings. We also called for enhanced air quality monitoring that has real-time data and is publicly accessible to at least give people a chance to try and respond in an intense pollution episode. None of these were included as conditions in the NAQO’s decision and Eskom has been tasked with delivering a mitigation plan but with no detail or decisive directions.
Where to from here?
The longer we delay a collective commitment to cleaner, cheaper and more reliable electricity generation, the more people will suffer chronic illness, disability and premature death, the higher the cost will become, and the more the damages are going to accumulate. South Africa’s Just Transition Framework speaks of distributive justice — where the costs and benefits of actions are equally distributed. This is not currently happening and the consequences are devastating. For some.
Note: The Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action (VEM) and groundWork (gW), represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), are appealing the decision by the National Air Quality Officer (NAQO) to allow Eskom to postpone compliance with the Minimum Emissions Standards for SO2 at Kusile. DM