LegalBrief 11 June 2019
Pollution: Activists tackle government on deadly Mpumalanga air
Underscoring World Environment Day’s focus on pollution, SA activists last week launched a landmark case to demand the government clean up ‘deadly air’ in the Mpumalanga highveld, writes Legalbrief. Groundwork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, are demanding that government reduces air pollution. The Mpumalanga highveld is home to a number of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants as well as Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant, which have all contributed to large amounts of pollution in the area. A BusinessLIVE report notes that the papers cite five respondents, including the Minister of Environmental Affairs Barbara Creecy, the national air quality officer and President Cyril Ramaphosa. The activists argue that government has violated the constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the area by failing to address the ‘deadly’ levels of air pollution. The activists say they have resorted to litigation because of the government’s repeated failure to enforce air quality laws. Bobby Peek, director of Groundwork, said the organisation and the communities it represents have consistently highlighted the issue of air pollution and its negative impact on human health. ‘Our experience is that government is not holding the big polluters to account,’ he said. ‘This is a public health crisis that can no longer be ignored.’
The court case is a matter of national importance because as far back as 2007, the SA Government admitted that air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA) dangerously exceeded levels defined in the Air Quality Act of 2004. This is according to Kevin Bloom in a Daily Maverick analysis. ‘Almost five years after the designation of the HPA, in March 2012, the then-Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa published an air quality management plan to deal with the emissions of carbon monoxide, lead, benzene, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide from these industrial plants,’ he notes. ‘Since then, with an international expert calculating an early death toll in the HPA as high as 650 a year, the South African Government appears to have done next to nothing. Annexed to the papers is a report commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights from US expert Dr Andrew Gray, who drew up an air-pollution dispersion model and health risk assessment for 14 industrial facilities on the Highveld. He quotes US expert Dr Andrew Gray who said ‘ambient (particulate matter) pollution from the 14 facilities caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in the area in 2016’. Also annexed to the court papers is a 2017 report commissioned by groundWork from UK-based air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland who claimed air pollution from these plants kills more than 2 200 South Africans every year. Holland said the costs to the country, in lost working days and hospital admissions, is more than R30bn a year.