While Eskom awaits decisions from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on its applications for postponement (in many cases, effectively exemption) to meet minimum emission standards for its coal-fired power stations, a new study  commissioned by NGO groundWork  reveals that while some of the country benefits from Eskom-produced electricity, it’s the health and lives of people in the Highveld that are carrying the health burden of the energy utility’s pollution.
With one of the world’s highest air pollution levels, most of the Highveld was declared a Priority Area (HPA) by the government in 2007 because of the health implications. Home to 12 of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, the area experiences a disproportionate amount of Eskom’s pollution. Friends of the Earth South Africa/groundWork’s new study shows that 51% of deaths due to respiratory illness and 54% deaths due to cardiovascular disease, related to outdoor pollution in the area, can be attributed to Eskom. This makes Eskom the primary driver of ambient air quality related illness in the area.
According to Professor Rajen Naidoo, Occupational Health Physician at the University of KwaZulu Natal, coal pollution not only causes respiratory related illness, “Other outcomes that we are also concerned about are cardiovascular problems. And also, longer-term effects such as cancers. We’re also now becoming more concerned about reproductive effects, the effects that this may have on pregnant women, on the unborn foetus.”
South Africa’s air quality standards are weaker than the World Health Organisation’s guidelines, and yet they are exceeded on a regular basis, putting people’s health and lives at risk. The Highveld was recognised as a pollution hotspot by the DEA with the aim to monitor and regulate industry’s emissions to protect people’s health. Seven years have passed with no improvement in the air quality.
“It’s a common reality that the young suffer, and the aged suffer. But the young of today are the adults of tomorrow, and so we’re creating a sick population in Mpumalanga, because the children that are sick today because of the air pollution from Eskom… they don’t grow to the potential they have, and as a result, we can say that the entire population is vulnerable, because sick children become sick adults,” says Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork.
Recently, Eskom made public its health reports commissioned in 2006, which indicate the eight power stations operating at the time were cumulatively responsible for 17 deaths and 661 respiratory hospital admissions per year. In response to Eskom’s claim in a recent newspaper article that the health statistics are incorrect, partner NGOs groundWork, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg  and the Centre for Environmental Rights  have written an open letter to the Eskom CEO, Collin Matjila .
Eskom has applied for ‘rolling postponements’ – which amount to exemption – for 14 of its coal-fired power stations, claiming that to implement pollution abatement technology across its fleet would cost up to R200 billion (US$18.5 billion). Most recent studies show that the cost to the State’s public health budget for illnesses related to coal combustion equals a similar amount of R230 billion (US$21.4 billion) .
Melissa Fourie, Executive Director at the Centre for Environmental Rights, explains, ”Eskom has made it clear that the cost for Eskom to comply with legislation is simply too much compared with the benefit to be gained from compliance…that tells you quite a lot about the lack of respect for human health.”
Not only do people suffer with outdoor air pollution, communities – many of whom cannot afford electricity – are forced to burn coal domestically. This means that they face a double burden to their health, both when indoors and outdoors.
“So in simple terms, the air that we breathe is not safe for human health. So, are we really living in a society that prioritises human needs or are we living in a society where we prioritise industries who don’t worry about the social wellbeing of the people around the area,” states Thomas Mnguni, a community activist living in the area.
groundWork, together with Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, are calling for the DEA to fulfil its constitutional mandate to ensure every South African lives in an environment not harmful to their health and well-being, and to reject Eskom’s applications. Furthermore, the organisations are calling for the government to do what is necessary to improve the air quality in the HPA and address the pollution-related ill health suffered by people living in the area.
For more information:
Please contact Megan Lewis at groundwork for further information or to arrange interviews with the above spokespeople.
Tel (w): +27 (0) 33 342 5662
Mobile: +27 (0) 83 450 5541
Spokespeople available for interview:
- Bobby Peek, Director, groundWork, Pietermaritzburg.
- Thomas Mnguni, Community Activist, Middleburg.
- Robyn Hugo, Attorney, Centre for Environmental Rights, Cape Town.
- Prof. Rajen Naidoo, Occupational Health Physician, Durban.
- Dr Eugene Cairncross, Environmental Scientist, Cape Town.
- James Irlam, Senior Lecturer in Primary Health Care, UCT, Cape Town.
 Media briefing
 groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa, and increasingly Southern Africa, on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Coal, Climate and Energy Justice, Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is the South African member of Friends of the Earth International www.groundwork.org.za
 Earthlife Africa Johannesburg seeks a better life for all people without exploiting other people or degrading their environment. Our aim is to encourage and support individuals, businesses and industries to reduce pollution, minimise waste and protect our natural resources www.earthlife.org.za
 The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is a non-profit company and law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa. The Centre was established in October 2009 by eight civil society organisations (CSOs) in South Africa’s environmental and environmental justice sector to provide legal and related support to environmental CSOs and communities. Its mission is to advance the realisation of environmental rights as guaranteed in the South African Constitution by providing support and legal representation to civil society organisations and communities who wish to protect their environmental rights, and by engaging in legal research, advocacy and litigation to achieve strategic change www.cer.org.za
 Open letter
 Myllyvirta L., 2014. Health Impacts and Social Costs of Eskom’s Proposed Non-Compliance with South Africa’s Air Emission Standards. Greenpeace International.