Eskom rejects pollution claims

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Durban - Eskom has rebutted claims by Greenpeace that its coal-fired plants are to blame for pollution-related illnesses - and instead heaped the blame on indoor wood and coal fires.

Greenpeace Africa has invited people to a photographic exhibition called “The Poisoned People”, starting on Thursday in Joburg. It features the stories of people living in coal communities surrounding Eskom’s power stations in Mpumalanga, the Free State and Limpopo, said Greenpeace representative Mbong Akiy.

The effects of the emissions, however, were not limited to those provinces.

The director of environmental organisation groundWork, Bobby Peek, recently said just after the group released its own study on the effects of pollution caused by the stations that the north-western parts of KwaZulu-Natal, simply because of their proximity to the Highveld, would be hard hit by emissions and related illnesses as well.

These areas, which include Colenso, Dundee, Newcastle and Ladysmith, also happen to be where South Africa’s largest deposits of coal are situated.

A study of groundWork’s showed that 51 percent of deaths due to respiratory illness and 54 percent due to cardiovascular disease related to outdoor pollution in the area could be attributed to the parastatal.

“It’s not like you can stop the pollution from crossing provincial boundaries,” Peek said at the time.

But Eskomon Tuesday, shot down the claims, saying they were based on “some incorrect assumptions”, and had not taken into account measures that the power utility had and would be implementing to mitigate emissions from its power stations.

“(We are) pursuing emission offsets in order to improve air quality in residential areas where exposure to poor air quality is greatest due to domestic burning of coal and wood,” it said.

Eskom added: “It is well established that the brunt of poor air quality in South Africa, and the associated health risks, are borne by people who burn coal and wood in their homes for cooking and heating. The best way of improving this poor air quality is through the provision of affordable electricity.”

The utility said the bulk of the premature mortalities alleged to occur were in fact calculated to occur owing to the construction of two new large coal-fired power stations in the northern Free State and near Grootvlei in Mpumalanga, and owing to the lack of sulphur dioxide abatement technology on two existing substations.

But Eskom said plans to construct those two new power stations had since been abandoned.

Flue gas desulphurisation (a technique used to remove sulphur dioxide from emissions), which reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent, would be installed at the new Kusile power station prior to commissioning and on the new Medupi power station between 2021 and 2024.

Kusile is close to the existing Kendal power station in Mpumalanga and is Eskom’s most advanced coal-fired power plant project. The station will consist of six units, each rated at approximately 800MW of installed capacity, with the first unit planned for commercial operation this year.

Medupi is a greenfield coal-fired power plant project in Limpopo and will be the fourth largest coal plant in the southern hemisphere.

It’s first unit is also slated for start-up this year.

“In addition, Kusile and Medupi will have fabric filter plants which reduce particulate emissions by more than 99.9 percent,” Eskom said. “As a result, the commissioning of the new power stations will not result in a significant deterioration in ambient air quality, or a significant increase in health risks.”

Preparation for an extensive emission reduction programme is under way at Eskom through actions including installing filters at existing power stations, it said.

“The programme will cost about R72 billion in nominal terms and requires substantial staff allocation and generation plant downtime over the next 12 years or so. The programme focuses on the highest-emitting and largest power stations.”

These major power station upgrades, Eskom said, would begin next year with the retrofit of fabric filter plants at its Grootvlei power station and should be completed by 2026, and would reduce particulate (ash) particle emissions by 67 percent between now and 2027 and sulphur dioxide emissions by 30 percent between 2021 and 2027.

But Greenpeace said that the proposed measures had not been enough, and the only solution was to employ the use of renewable energy and abandon the use of coal as an energy source completely.

“After studying air quality in the Witbank area for almost two years, a team of scientists from the EU came to an alarming conclusion. They found that (the area’s) air was the world’s dirtiest - even when compared to the likes of Beijing, where people wear face masks to protect themselves from air pollution,” it said.

Greenpeace added: “It’s no coincidence that Mpumalanga is also home to 11 of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. A 12th is being built and when completed, Kusile will be one of the world’s largest, burning 17 million tons of coal a year.

“It will also ramp up South Africa’s carbon emissions by another 10 percent, cementing our position as one of the world’s highest contributors to climate change.”

It said it had found that air pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants was causing an estimated 2 200 premature deaths a year, including about 200 deaths of young children.

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