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Environmental organisations take Highveld pollution matter to court

10th June 2019 BY: MARLENY ARNOLDI 

Environmental justice group groundWork and community organisation Vukani Environment Justice Movement in Action have launched “landmark litigation”, demanding that government clean up the air in the Mpumalanga Highveld.

GroundWork and Vukani on June 7 served papers to the High Court, asking that President CyrilRamaphosa, the National Air Quality Officer and Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy, declare the levels of air pollution on the Highveld a violation of people’s Constitutional rights.


The court case is also aimed at forcing government to take meaningful action to implement and enforce the 2012 Highveld Priority Area (HPA) air quality management plan (AQMP).

GoundWork and Vukani, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), alleged that government had violated the Constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the HPA, by failing to deal with “deadly levels” of air pollution in the area.


The CER said Mpumalanga accounted for about 83% of South Africa’s coal production, with Eskom owning 12 coal-fired power plants in and around the HPA.

Environmental organisation Greenpeace Africa in October 2018 reported on satellite data, which revealed that Mpumalanga had the highest nitrogen dioxide emissions of any area across six continents.

In 2007, the then Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk had designated the HPA because of the poor air quality in the province.

Nearly five years later, in 2012, the then Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa published an AQMP to clean up the HPA’s air pollution.

However, little has changed since then, groundWork said in a statement published on Friday.

The organisation alleged that human exposure to toxic chemical compounds emitted by the coal-fired power plants, such as sulphur dioxide, heavy metals such mercury, and fine particulate matter, resulted in chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer, and contributed to strokes, heart attacks, birth defects and premature death.

In a health risk modelling study done and submitted to court by independent expert and Gray Sky Solutions founder Dr AndrewGray, he estimated that emissions from the nearby facilities – Eskom’s 12 power plants and two major fuel refineries within the HPA – had resulted in between 305 and 650 early deaths in 2016.

“Expert analysis included in the court papers had shown that thousands of school children and the elderly were acutely affected by the area’s air pollution and the supporting affidavits in this case painted a devastating picture of how this poor air quality impacts residents’ daily lives.

“It was high time that the South African government prioritised the human rights of the families residing in this pollution hotspot,” said CER attorney Tim Lloyd.

The Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister is now required to, by early July, make available, all the records relating to her predecessors’ decision not to promulgate regulations to make the HPA AQMP enforceable and the reasons for this decision. 

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