Death in the Highveld: Landmark case shows how burning coal is killing people

A year after Cebile Mkhwanazi gave birth to her daughter, in about 2016, her two children started struggling to breathe. The baby was diagnosed with asthma, while her young son, three years old at the time, soon started to show symptoms too.

Now, both children need oxygen to sleep at night. Cebile’s doctor told her that the air pollution is making her children sick, but she and her husband are poor, and the coal mines in the area are a source of desperately-needed income. The only medical care available to them is a mobile clinic which visits once a week. They cannot afford private treatment. The children often miss school because they are sick. The little girl is too sick to go to day care at all at the moment. Cebile is afraid that she is going to lose her.

Her story is one of several detailed in heartbreaking detail in a landmark new court case which could force government to do something about the toxic levels of pollution in the Highveld area. The case is brought by groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER). They have taken government, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, to court in an effort to force them to take action over “deadly” levels of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area, where 12 of Eskom’s coal powered fleet are located.

The applicants allege that government’s lack of action over air pollution has violated a fundamental constitutional right of the people who live there: Section 24 of the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being.

OPINION: Eskom deals in denial about premature deaths

The minister of environmental affairs, the national air quality officer, and the Gauteng and Mpumalanga MECs for agriculture and rural development are also cited as respondents.

The devastation caused by air pollution in the Highveld, and the urgency required to fix it, are laid out in devastating scientific detail in the court papers. Also attached are affidavits by people living in and around these facilities who have firsthand accounts of the health risks of breathing in this pollution every day.

In her affidavit, Cebile describes the dust from the two open mines near her house and the black smoke that comes from the nearby steel plant. It gives off a smell like burning cables, she says, and the pollution is getting worse. She says no one – not the people responsible for the mining or the steel plant, or government – is doing anything about it.

Cebile and her family do not burn coal in their house and rely on electricity and gas. Just over 3% of households in Mpumalanga use coal, despite government’s efforts elsewhere to lump domestic coal burning in with the reasons for the area’s air pollution. In fact, by a massive margin, the biggest reasons for the air pollution in Mpumalanga are Eskom and Sasol, research attached to the court papers shows.

In 2016, while Cebile’s children were struggling to breathe, air pollution killed between 305 and 650 people in the Highveld, new research shows. The research, attached to the court papers, was done by Dr Andrew Gray, a US-based air pollution research consultant. The CER commissioned Gray to conduct an air-pollution dispersion model and health risk assessment for 12 of Eskom’s coal fired facilities, the Sasol Synfuels chemical facility and Total’s Natref facility. All of these are in the Mpumalanga Highveld area.

The worst offenders are Eskom’s Lethabo, Kendal and Kriel power stations.

The air around all 120 “sensitive” sites analysed by Gray, including schools and hospitals, exceeded the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for daily or hourly averages for all pollution in 2016. According to Gray, the 14 facilities are directly responsible for this.

If these facilities comply with the minimum emission standards (MES) by 2020, as they will be required to by law, the deaths could be reduced by up to 60%, Gray says. 

Highveld a priority area

The Highveld is one of three areas declared by government to be “priority areas” because of their air pollution – the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area, and the Waterberg-Bojanala National Priority Area. Twelve years ago, the court papers show, civil society pressurised the then minister of environmental affairs to declare a 31 000 square kilometer area straddling Gauteng and Mpumalanga as one of these “priority areas”. Government said at the time that people living and working in this Highveld priority area “do not enjoy air quality that is not harmful to their health and well-being”.

Four years later, a “Highveld plan” to reduce the air pollution in the area was published by government. Little has been done since then, the applicants allege, and people are getting sicker, and they are dying.

Among other prayers, the applicants also want the minister of environmental affairs’ failure to prescribe regulations to give effect to the Highveld plan to be declared unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid. They want the court to order the minister to initiate and prescribe these regulations within six months.

Air pollutants are required to stick to certain “minimum emission standards”. But our biggest culprits have been let off the hook by the air quality control officer after being granted extensions for compliance on somewhat flimsy grounds. In any event, the applicants say that our minimum standards are actually weak and need updating – even weaker than those of nations like China and India.

'Clean coal'?

Government’s response to the case remains to be seen, and Ramaphosa and the other respondents have a few weeks in which to indicate whether they will oppose the application. But if its public response to the issue is anything to go by, it will probably not agree with the applicants. It has been notoriously soft on air polluters, especially the biggest problem, which is Eskom.

In October 2017, the CER, in collaboration with groundWork and the Highveld Environmental Justice Network brought out a report called “Broken promises”, detailing the horrific consequences of government’s failure to act on the Highveld priority area’s pollution problem. Responding to the report in an interview with the SABC, national air quality control officer Dr Thuli Khumalo said it was not true that the air quality of the Highveld had not improved.

She said there were also other sources of pollution to be considered, like “domestic burning, mining, but also another emerging sources”, and said a strategy was needed that focused on “all the sources”, not just Eskom and the big industry.

The research submitted by the CER blows that defence out of the water.

Khumalo also said South Africa needs coal for its electricity baseload.

Newly-minted minister of energy and mines Gwede Mantashe’s defence of Trumpian “clean coal” also does not inspire confidence.

Whatever government’s on-the-record response to this court case will be aside, the research seems to be irrefutable: a strategy that does not address Eskom’s enormous coal polluters and the two refineries in the Highveld, is not going to solve the Highveld’s air pollution crisis. And people will continue to die.