Trying to improve South Africa’s air quality is an essentially frustrating exercise. Small and immediate successes can improve things, but larger progress is hampered because national decisions affecting air quality are taken out of the hands of the department best placed to make these decisions – environment affairs.
The structural problem goes back to apartheid South Africa, where heavy industry was built in clusters where mostly black workers were forced to live downwind of their choking gas emissions.
The decision to build these plants had little to do with environmental considerations.
Each of these industries were approved individually and the law gave no way for legislators to look at the overall impact of industry. This meant the Vaal Triangle and Highveld were packed with smokestacks. But the advent of a democratic South Africa brought about a change in this legislative blindspot.
Air quality legislation now looks at the overall impact of new projects that will release pollutants into the atmosphere. In theory, new plants cannot be built if they push the ambient levels of things such as sulphur dioxide over set levels.
Legal limits for things such as sulphur dioxide and particulate matter have also been set.
This has seen steady success in the last decade. In its recently released “State of Air: 2005 – 2014” report, the environment department says significant progress has been made in troubled hotspots.
Areas such as Durban South – where a Mail & Guardian investigation last year found that people lived with constant chest problems due to emissions they blamed on local industry – have seen a gradual but continual decrease in the recorded levels of dangerous air pollutants.
Improvements have also come in the Vaal Triangle, where Sasol and ArcelorMittal are the largest industries. But the air quality in the metros is still in regular contravention of the legal limits – in Johannesburg air quality monitoring has not happened properly for the last four years. Tshwane and Ekurhuleni are also hotspots.
The three biggest types of air pollution are sulphur dioxide, particulate matter 10 and particulate matter 2.5 – the latter being a dust particle so fine that it gets trapped deep inside people’s respiratory tract. These cause a wide range of healthy problems and eventually lead to death. They also help speed up global warming.
To get companies to comply with the law, the national environment department has been using the carrot. Industries have been given a reprieve of up to five years when it comes to complying with air quality limits that came into effect this year.
Essentially, all new industrial activities should have complied with the law in 2010. The thousand larger-scale industrial polluters already running factories were then given five years to refit their plants so they could also come into compliance.
But the big problem is Eskom. Its fleet of coal-fired power stations are now half a century old. Most should be decommissioned in the next decade. The power utility is, however, extending their service, and in some cases has declined to give new decommissioning dates for plants.
At this level there is little the enforcement arm of environment affairs can do. Its Green Scorpions can inspect sites, but when Eskom says it does not have the funds to fix antiquated stations so they pollute less there is no further step that the department can take.
And there is a conundrum for the department. Eskom’s plants are hugely polluting. Last year the M&G published the findings of the utility’s own research, showing that that pollution kills people. New plants will pollute less, lowering their burden on the environment and on communities.
This is in theory. In reality, Eskom has pushed back on compliance at even its new stations. Medupi was built in a water-stressed region – Waterberg in western Limpopo. In its environment plan and promises to the World Bank, Eskom said it would install flu gas desulphurisation technology onto its smokestacks to make them pollute less.
In this case, it would mean 95% of the sulphur coming out of the stacks would be removed. Sulphur goes into people’s lungs and is responsible for cardiovascular problems and different types of cancer.
But because the region is water stressed, Eskom has since delayed the installation of the technology while the water affairs department spends billions of Rands to divert water from western Gauteng to Medupi. The plant will now start installation of the technology in the latter half of the 2020s – 15 years after its first units start emitting pollutants.
Eskom documents published by the M&G last year said that if the technology was installed, one mortality would be “avoided” each year, as well as 50 respiratory hospital admissions.
President Zuma also announced the construction of a new coal-fired power station – Coal 3 – in Mpumalanga. Speaking to the M&G, officials at the environment department said that there is no way the department can stop this.
One senior official said the political reality meant their department had little say in developments on a national scale, even if they meant environmental law would be broken: “Even if it is adding to the levels of pollution in the area, all we can do is write a recommendation arguing against approval.”
And that is the frustration. Whatever achievements that have been made to date in improving air quality, decisions on a national scale by other departments can immediately set back all of that work.