A study into the impact of pollution emitted by Eskom, Sasol Synfuels and National Petroleum Refiners of South Africa (Natref) has provided evidence of the harmful effects these organisations are having on the environment, human health and life expectancy.
The study is included as expert evidence in court papers served on Friday June 7 on the President of South Africa, the Minister of Environmental Affairs and the National Air Quality Officer, in a High Court action aimed at getting the minister to do her job.
The evidence drives home the state of affairs in the Highveld Priority Area, a 31 000 km2 chunk of the country – bigger than Belgium – cutting across Gauteng and Mpumalanga. It was declared a ‘priority area’ in terms of Air Quality Act by then minister of environmental affairs and tourism Martinus van Schalkwyk on November 23, 2007.
Government has been thrust into the spotlight for allowing this to happen.
This means all eyes will be on newly-appointed Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy, who has been in the role for less than two weeks (the position was previously held by the late Edna Molewa and more recently by Nomvula Mokonyane).
I was commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) to conduct an air pollution dispersion model and health risk assessment for 14 industrial facilities located in and around the Mpumalanga Highveld Priority Area (HPA) – 12 Eskom coal-fired power stations, the Sasol Synfuels chemical facility and the Natref refinery.
The Highveld Priority Area
Air pollution in the form of minute particles such as dust, smoke or ash is referrred to as particulate matter (PM) and is measured in microns up to a certain diameter; for example, PM2.5 refers to particulate matter up to 2.5 µm (microns) in diameter.
Important results from the modelling and health risk assessment include:
Ambient PM5 pollution from the 14 facilities caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in the area in 2016.
The three worst offenders were Lethabo Power Station (57 to 122 early deaths), Kendal Power Station (46 to 99 early deaths), and Kriel Power Station (34 to 76 early deaths).
If the 14 facilities were required to comply with the Minimum Emission Standards (MES) developed in terms of the Air Quality Act 39 of 2004 that will go into effect in 2020, this would reduce early deaths by 60%, preventing between 182 and 388 early deaths in and around the HPA every year.
Acute emissions exposures
Cumulative emissions from the 14 facilities created acute exposures in 2016 that exceeded World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for daily or hourly averages for all pollutants.
The highest 24-hour average exposure of PM5 was 45 µg/m3, nearly twice the WHO guideline of 25 µg/m3. These conditions occurred around the Kendal, Kriel and Duvha power stations.
The highest 24-hour average exposure of sulphur dioxide (SO2), a dangerous gas emitted through the burning of coal and certain metallurgical and petrochemical processes, was 241.4 µg/m3 – over 1200% of the WHO standard of 20 µg/m3.
The highest one-hour average of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – another dangerous gas emitted through the aforementioned processes – was 2020 µg/m3, over 1000% of the one-hour average standard of 200 µg/m3.
Implementing the 2020 MES would completely eliminate the WHO guideline exceedances for 24-hour average PM10 and 24-hour average PM2.5, and would significantly reduce the number of exceedances for 24-hour average SO2 and one-hour average NO2 throughout the modelled area.
All of the 120 sensitive sites (primarily schools and hospitals) analysed in the model exceeded the WHO’s 24-hour average SO2 guideline (20 µg/m3) in 2016 due to emissions from the 14 facilities.
The modelled average peak 24-hour SO2 concentration across all 120 sensitive sites was 66.4 µg/m3 in 2016, with a maximum of 178 µg/m3 at Duvha Primary School.
Under the 2020 MES, the average concentration at the sensitive sites would be reduced to 13,6 “SP16” 2932 µg/m3. Implementing the 2020 MES at the facilities would bring SO2 exposures at 93% of the sensitive sites (all but nine) to within the WHO guideline.
Exposure to nitrogen dioxide
Unhealthy, acute exposures to NO2 occurred at 28 of the 120 sensitive sites in 2016, exceeding the WHO one-hour NO2 guideline concentration of 200 µg/m3.
The worst acute exposure was at Camden Combined School, at 1079 µg/m3.
Under the 2020 MES, there would still be 14 sites in which the 200 µg/m3 would be exceeded (led by Camden Combined School at 588 µg/m3).
The average peak one-hour average NO2 concentration across all 120 sites was 191 µg/m3 in 2016.
Under the 2020 MES, the average of all 120 sites would be reduced to 115 µg/m3.
‘Alarmingly high’ contribution
The 14 facilities are responsible for the lion’s share of air pollution allowed by national air quality limits.
In 2016, emissions from the 14 facilities accounted for:
- 92% of the daily ambient SO2 limit
- 85% of the hourly ambient SO2 limit
- 82% of the hourly ambient NO2 limit
- 68% of the daily ambient PM5 limit
These levels of contribution indicate that ambient air quality standards cannot be achieved without reducing pollution from these sources.
Given the hundreds of other sources of air pollution in and around the HPA, particularly PM and NO2, these 14 facilities contribute alarmingly high – and relatively easily reducible – percentages of national limits.
If these sources were to comply with the 2020 Minimum Emission Standards, their contribution to ambient air pollution would substantially decrease, accounting for:
- 20% of the daily ambient SO2 limit (79% reduction from 2016)
- 21% of the hourly ambient SO2 limit (75% reduction from 2016)
- 53% of the hourly ambient NO2 limit (35% reduction from 2016)
- 28% of the daily ambient PM5 limit (59% reduction from 2016)
Major reductions of SO2 emissions from the 14 sources are necessary to reduce the high levels of secondary PM5 (from sulphate particles) contributing to PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standards of South Africa (Naaqs) exceedances in and around the HPA.
Compliance with the 2020 MES would result in SO2 emissions from the facilities being reduced by 78% relative to 2016 emissions. NO2 emissions from the facilities would be reduced by 43%. PM10 emissions from the facilities would be reduced by 51%.
The 14 modelled sources are responsible for substantial PM5 exposures across at least 30% of the entire modelled area.
If the sources complied with the 2020 MES, the area exposed to relatively high concentrations of PM2.5 would be completely eliminated, resulting in healthier air for the large populations in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Dr. H. Andrew Gray heads up air pollution research firm Gray Sky Solutions in the US.