Battling Mpumalanga's killer air

2019-08-25 15:35

The department of environment, forestry and fisheries has missed two deadlines to file records in a landmark case, which seeks to force government to clean up the air in Mpumalanga’s Highveld region.

This is where residents inhale polluted air – and suffer respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses as a result.

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) – acting on behalf of environmental organisations groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action – wants the matter settled urgently, after experts described the polluted air as “a public health hazard”.

The Mpumalanga Highveld has a concentration of 12 coal-fired, electricity-generating power stations, along with other industries that emit dangerous chemicals into the air.

The CER brought its application to the Pretoria High Court in June.

At the heart of its court action is government’s failure to reduce the dangerous levels of air pollution in the so-called Highveld Priority Area (HPA), which includes a large part of Mpumalanga and eastern Gauteng.

This has resulted in hundreds of people dying every year and thousands suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, especially children and the elderly.

The CER has described this failure to act as a blatant violation of people’s guaranteed constitutional right to a healthy environment.

Not only is the province a sulphur dioxide hotspot, it is also the subject of a court case implicating the state for failing to enforce air-quality laws.

What makes this a landmark case is the fact that the South African government has yet to be declared in breach of a human right based on air pollution.

CER attorney Timothy Lloyd said that former environment minister Nomvula Mokonyane had been expected to make available all the records she had considered when she decided not to implement regulations set out in the Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP), published in 2012, to clean up the HPA.

She denied that the department had violated the Constitution by not enforcing air quality laws, saying she regarded the AQMP as a plan, not a regulation.

Mokonyane’s successor, Barbara Creecy, was expected to make available the records by July, said Lloyd.

But, said Lloyd, “we received a letter from the State Attorney, on behalf of Minister Creecy, asking for an extension to August 16 to file the record”.

“Our clients [the applicants] granted this extension, but asked the minister to endeavour to file the records by the end of July, given the nature of the application and time that had already lapsed,” Lloyd said.

But records were still not filed by mid-August, he said.

Lloyd sent another letter to the State Attorney, asking for the records to be filed on August 21, but there has been no response to date.

“Without the records, the case cannot continue,” he said.

“The real prejudice caused by such a significant and unjustifiable delay is to the public residing in the Highveld. Given the nature of this application – and the urgency of the situation in the HPA as a consequence of the daily and very serious effects caused by the high levels of air pollution – we asked for the records to be filed by August 21. Despite this, the records have still not been filed.”


Department of Environment spokesperson, Albie Modise, said that the Minister and the National Air Quality Officer, were unable to meet the time frame due to the complexity of the matter.

“The compilation of the record is taking longer than expected therefore a further extension has been requested by the State Attorney. The Minister is cognisant of the importance of this matter and all efforts to expedite the matter is underway,” Modise said.

According to new data from Nasa satellites released on Monday, the area around Kriel in Mpumalanga is now the world’s biggest sulphur dioxide (SO2) hotspot. Greenpeace India commissioned a study using these Nasa satellites to track SO2 hot spots around the world.

The new data shows that the Highveld SO2 emissions are beaten only by the enormous nickel smelters at Norilsk in Russia – one of the 10 most polluted places on Earth, according to environmental nonprofit organisation the Blacksmith Institute. In third place is an enormous petrochemicals plant at Zargoz in Iran.


According to a study conducted in June by Dr Andrew Gray, an expert in air and health risk modelling, in 2016 between 305 and 650 early deaths were caused by pollution from 14 industrial facilities – 12 Eskom power stations, the Sasol Synfuels chemical facility and the Natref refinery. The facilities are located in and around Mpumalanga’s HPA.

The three worst offenders, said Gray, were Lethabo power station (57 to 122 early deaths) in the Free State, Kendal power station (46 to 99 early deaths), and Kriel power station (34 to 76 early deaths).

If the 14 facilities were required to comply with the minimum emissions standards that will go into effect in 2020 – known as the 2020 MES – this would reduce early deaths by 60%, preventing between 182 and 388 early deaths in and around the HPA every year
Dr Andrew Gray, an expert in air and health risk modelling

Gray was commissioned by the CER to do the study.

Dumisani Malamule, spokesperson for Mpumalanga’s health department, said the most common lung diseases diagnosed in people living in the province’s highly polluted areas were asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “This had been noted for the high number of patients on oxygen in those areas, compared with areas in the Lowveld with similar numbers of people,” he said.

“Currently, 102 patients are receiving oxygen at home to treat lung diseases. While we may not have concrete information with regard to deaths as a result of air pollution, the high numbers of patients with lung disease contribute to morbidity and mortality in these areas.”

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April 5 2020