The right to breathe in South Africa’s coal places

Published by MAC on 2021-05-26
Source: Energytransition.org, Independent Online, Daily Ma (2021-05-23)

A legal battle has become known as the ‘Deadly Air’ court case, and is ongoing.

Every day people living and working on the Mpumalanga Highveld are breathing toxic, polluted air that is harmful to their health and well-being. This is a violation of their Constitutional rights. This has been the argument this week in a virtual hearing before the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, in the so-called Deadly Air Case, brought by the environmental justice group Groundwork Trust and the Vukani Environmental Justice Alliance. The case concerns the toxic levels of ambient air pollution caused by coal-fired power generation projects in the Highveld priority area, situated in Mpumalanga.

The exceptionally high concentration of coal power plants and mines in Emalahleni (“place of coal” in Zulu), Eastern Cape province, is causing the region to have some of the world’s worst air quality. A cluster of 12 coal-fired power stations, along with the many coal mines that supply these stations, produces pollutants linked to asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, and neurological problems, while also accounting for 40% of South Africa’s carbon dioxide emissions.  

There are days when the air around the Vaal Triangle is so dirty you can taste it. The locals call it the ‘Vuil Driehoek’, the Dirty Triangle because the air is notoriously filthy, clogged with soot and chemicals from the mines, smelters, and other manufacturing plants in this industrial hub about 60 kilometers south of Johannesburg. It holds the unenviable title of having the country’s most polluted air.

See also:

2021-03-17 South Africa: Communities protest Ikwezi coal mine

2020-06-13 The Weekend Essay: One of South Africa’s largest mines at battle centre

2019-11-21 South Africa: Courts and Citizens reject new coal mine

The right to breathe: Landmark legal case a fight for South African children harmed by coal’s deadly air

The ‘Deadly Air’ court application will be heard in the Pretoria High Court on May 2021. NGOs groundWork and Vukani Environmental Movement, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, want the government to properly enforce its 2012 plan to improve air quality in Mpumalanga, including through regulations targeting large polluters such as the coal industry.

Zita Hansungule, Rico Euripidou and Promise Mabilo

19 May 2021

Cebile Faith Mkhwanazi’s seven-year-old son loves to play football and often spends his afternoons kicking a ball around with friends near their home in eMalahleni, on the Mpumalanga Highveld.      

But Mkhwanazi doesn’t allow her son to play outside for long. The exceptionally high concentration of coal power plants and mines in the area means that towns like eMalahleni, which in Zulu means “place of coal”, are reported to have some of the world’s worst air quality.

Mkhwanazi’s son and his five-year-old sister suffer from asthma, which she attributes to pollution from two nearby open-cast coal mines, as well the thick black smoke that billows from a local steel plant. Both Mkhwanazi’s children are frequently too sick to go to school and require oxygen at night to sleep properly.

The Mkhwanazi family’s story is key evidence in the Deadly Air case, a legal challenge brought by South African environmental justice groups groundWork and Vukani Environmental Movement, that is being heard in the Pretoria High Court from 17 to 19 May 2021. The groups argue that the unsafe levels of ambient (outdoor) air pollution experienced by families and children in Mpumalanga are a violation of South Africa’s constitutional right to a healthy environment.

A major contributor to the Mpumalanga Highveld’s reported status as one of the most polluted hotspots in the world is a cluster of 12 coal-fired power stations, along with the many coal mines that supply these stations. The large volume of pollution from these power stations produces pollutants linked to asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, and neurological problems, while also accounting for 40% of South Africa’s carbon dioxide emissions.  

In 2007, the South African government declared portions of both Mpumalanga and neighbouring Gauteng an air quality “priority area”, and in 2012 published a plan to bring air pollution in line with national air quality standards by 2020. Since then, however, the government has made little progress in forcing coal and other industries to reduce pollution, with the national air quality officer repeatedly allowing coal-fired power plants to delay compliance with national air emission limits. 

Unsurprisingly, air quality in the Highveld Priority Area has not meaningfully improved. A 2019 socioeconomic impact assessment by the government found that communities in priority areas remain at “high risk of acute and chronic health effects” and that in Mpumalanga “there is a chance to save thousands of lives” if annual national air quality standards are met. The study also noted that children affected by air pollution, who’s still-developing respiratory systems make them especially vulnerable in a polluted environment, struggle to access healthcare, miss school, and seek medical attention only when they are “critically sick”.

In their legal submissions, the environmental justice groups argue that South Africa’s constitutional requirement that the government give “a child’s best interests… paramount importance in every matter concerning the child” means that, by failing to reduce the air pollution, the government is not meeting this legal obligation. The harmful levels of air pollution experienced by children such as Mkhwanazi’s, the groups argue, can never be in a child’s best interests. 

The pollution in Mpumalanga is just one example of the devastating impact of air pollution on children, both in underserved South African communities and across the world. Professor David Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, stated in a 2019 report that air pollution globally contributes to seven million premature deaths annually, including the deaths of about 600,000 children.

Boyd has intervened in the Deadly Air case as a friend of the court, warning that a failure to protect children from air pollution violates South Africa’s obligations under international human rights law. He notes that children “have their whole lives ahead of them”, making irreversible health impacts especially devastating.

If the Deadly Air case succeeds, the Pretoria High Court would declare that the poor air quality in the Highveld Priority Area is in breach of residents’ rights to a healthy environment, and it could order Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy to properly enforce the 2012 plan to improve air quality in Mpumalanga, including through regulations targeting large polluters such as the coal industry. 

The government’s own 2019 socioeconomic impact assessment, while underscoring the urgency of reducing pollution to save lives, recognised the impossibility of reducing harmful emissions without tackling coal dependence.

“The country is held to ransom by the industry because of employment problems,” the assessment stated. “Industries do not [prioritise] environment compliance. They focus on profit.” 

The groups bringing the Deadly Air case argue that South Africa, by investing in a “just transition” to low-carbon renewable energy sources, can create sustainable and decent jobs, reduce pollution and fight climate change. Importantly, the 2019 socioeconomic assessment goes on to conclude that women and children in low-income communities will benefit most if air pollution is reduced. 

As for Mkhwanazi and her family, a doctor has told her that leaving the air pollution in eMalahleni would improve her children’s health. But Mkhwanazi and her husband have stayed because they worry that they won’t be able to find jobs anywhere else.

“Why should we have to choose between feeding our children and protecting them from pollution?” she said. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Zita Hansungule is the Senior Project Coordinator for the Centre for Child Law’s Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Unit. Rico Euripidou is groundWork’s Environmental Health Campaigner. He trained as an Environmental Epidemiologist. Promise Mabilo is the coordinator for Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action.


Air pollution in Mpumalanga Highveld ’is violation of people’s Constitutional rights’

Zelda Venter

Independent Online https://www.iol.co.za/pretoria-news/news/air-pollution-in-mpumalanga-highveld-is-violation-of-peoples-constitutional-rights-1a03de31-b30e-4928-a0b6-17cbc7db871e

May 19, 2021

Pretoria – Every day people living and working on the Mpumalanga Highveld are breathing toxic, polluted air that is harmful to their health and well-being. This is a violation of their Constitutional rights.

This has been the argument this week in a virtual hearing before the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, in the so-called Deadly Air Case, brought by the environmental justice group Groundwork Trust and the Vukani Environmental Justice Alliance.

The case concerns the toxic levels of ambient air pollution caused by coal-fired power generation projects in the Highveld priority area, situated in Mpumalanga.

The environmental groups are asking for an order declaring that the levels of air pollution in the area are in breach of the constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being.

Lawyers for Human Rights represents Professor David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Environment, has intervened as a friend of the court.

He has been admitted in order to provide relevant evidence, based on expert opinion, on the adverse impacts of air pollution and the enjoyment of human rights.

Boyd made submissions regarding international and regional human rights law and instruments, and emphasised to the court that poor and marginalised communities disproportionately shoulder the burden of toxic air.

Community organisations advocate for clean air as they feel that the government’s response in addressing this life-threatening situation has been insignificant.

The applicants are asking the court to declare that the dangerous levels of ambient (outdoor) air pollution in the Highveld Priority area constitutes a violation of the constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health or well-being.

They also want to force the government to develop effective regulations to properly implement and enforce the Highveld Priority area’s Quality Management Plan.

GroundWork and the Vukani Environmental Movement, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, launched this constitutional litigation in 2019.

It said that according to Finland-based research organisation Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, South Africa – particularly the Mpumalanga Highveld – was one of the most polluted areas in the world.

According to the organisation, approximately 4.5 million people who live in the Highveld Area are daily breathing toxic, polluted air that is adversely affecting their health and well-being.

They want the government to enforce the law and ensure the people of the Highveld have access to clean air.

These groups say that air pollution exacerbates a number of fatal diseases, and communities in this area remain at high risk of acute and chronic health effects due to long-term exposure to this polluted air.

In addition, they say, air pollution increases fatalities due to Covid-19, as the community suffers from comorbidities caused by pollutants.

The environmental groups asked the court to declare that the environmental minister has a legal duty to prescribe regulations to give legal effect to the Highveld air quality management plan.

According to the environmental groups, the government is simply ignoring the rights of people working and living on the Highveld by failing to reduce the deadly levels of air pollution.

They say the government urgently needs to take steps to deal with the pollution and to improve the quality of human lives in the area.

Boyd said in court papers that fine particulate air pollution – tiny particles of soot, black carbon, sulphates, nitrates and heavy metals that are breathed into the lungs and passed into the bloodstream – is the single largest environmental risk to human health.

Environmental Minister Barbara Creecy has said in her opposing papers that she is acutely aware of the problem.

She said the people working and living in the affected area had her as well as “every official” in her department’s sympathy.

But Creecy said that since taking office, she has done everything in her power to address the issue. According to her, the eradication of air pollution is one of her priorities and it is receiving the necessary attention.


Fossil fuel’s killer air pollution: South Africa’s death toll

A year since the first COVID-19 cases appeared in South Africa, the disease has killed more than 50,000 people. A new study now shows that a similar number of South Africans die each year due to diseases caused by air pollution linked with the burning of fossil fuels.

Leonie Joubert

30 Mar 2021

There are days when the air around the Vaal Triangle is so dirty you can taste it. The locals call it the ‘Vuil Driehoek’, the Dirty Triangle because the air is notoriously filthy, clogged with soot and chemicals from the mines, smelters, and other manufacturing plants in this industrial hub about 60 kilometers south of Johannesburg. It holds the unenviable title of having the country’s most polluted air.

Alma Viviers was born in Sasolburg, a city in the heart of the Vaal Triangle that got its name from the petrochemical giant Sasol which today has one of its biggest and most polluting coal-to-gas refineries still operating in the area.

When Viviers was a child in the 1980s, ‘Sasol chest’ was a thing. That’s the local slang for the scourge of respiratory problems that so many complained of: widespread, low-level asthma, and other breathing-related issues such as chest and airway infections.

When Viviers was in primary school in the late-’80s, she remembers how some children in school carried air monitoring devices around with them. To her young mind, these looked as foreign as a Geiger counter, but by her recollection, this was the first large-scale air quality testing to be done in the area as authorities tried to get to the bottom of ‘Sasol chest’.

Three decades later, a new study published in the journal Environmental Research shows that the air quality around the industrial heartland of the country is still a blinking red dot on the map of ambient air pollution in the region.

The study — by researchers from Harvard University, and associates in the UK, including the Universities of Birmingham, Leicester, and University College London — made international news this month, showing that air pollution linked with burning coal and diesel kills around 8 million people each year globally. Deaths in China and India made up the highest number, but they also did the number-crunching for South Africa, coming up with an estimated 45,000 deaths a year from air pollution linked with burning fossil fuels.

Cut carbon for immediate health benefits

Usually when researchers grapple with the impact that burning carbon-dense fuels will have on our health, they look towards the future. They quantify, for instance, the likely increase in cholera and other water-borne diseases following heavy rainfall and extreme flooding in 10, 20, or 50 years from now. Or they’ll consider the number of outdoor laborers who will be at risk during a heatwave. They might explain how changing growing conditions will cascade through to farmers’ yields, and how that trickles down through the food value chain, leaving people nutritionally wanting.

The suggestion is that the uncomfortable changes asked of society and individuals today, in order to slow carbon pollution and stabilize the climate, will not be for the immediate benefit of those living today.

The Harvard-led study, however, is a reminder that cutting back on burning fossil fuels will immediately benefit public health, possibly preventing the same number of deaths each year in South Africa as has been lost to COVID since the start of the pandemic.

The ‘Deadly Air’ case: taking the government to court

Just east of Sasolburg and the Vaal Triangle is another battle ground, where citizens are now fighting their government for clean air.

The Mpumalanga Highveld is the site of the country’s most abundant coal deposits, which is why so many of South Africa’s coal-fired powers stations have been built here. While the whole country and economy feed on the electricity produced in Mpumalanga, it is the people living close to the power stations who are breathing in the smoggy air that is clogged with sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Civil society groups Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action (VEJMA) and groundWork have taken the Minister of Environment Forestry and Fisheries to court over the levels of air pollution in the Mpumalanga area, which they say is ‘toxic and unsafe’.

While Minister Barbara Creecy has denied claims that government ‘is failing in its obligations to address the air pollution’ here, she did say in her court affidavit recently that she is “aware of the unacceptably high levels of ambient air pollution in the (area) and the potential for that polluted ambient air to adversely impact on the health and well-being of the people living and working (there).”

This legal battle has become known as the ‘Deadly Air’ court case, and is ongoing.

This case is just one of several in recent years, where communities living in and around the country’s industrial hubs are forced to turn to the courts to get the government to uphold its obligation to realize citizens’ constitutionally upheld right to a clean environment. And, as this Harvard-led research shows, some 45,000 lives could be saved each year by moving away from burning fossil fuels and cleaning up the tainted air that many South Africans breathe.

Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa.

SOURCE:

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