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Air pollution controls ‘falling apart’

150711. Sunset in Crownmines, Johannesburg. The picture can be used for Eskom energy supply crisis. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

150711. Sunset in Crownmines, Johannesburg. The picture can be used for Eskom energy supply crisis. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Published Sep 16, 2014

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Durban - The government has come under attack for its seemingly deliberate policy to “go softly” on big industry polluters and to delay or weaken laws to protect South Africans from harmful levels of toxic air.

In a lengthy report entitled “Slow Poison”, published on Monday, environmental watchdog groups accuse the national government of allowing air pollution control to collapse in several parts of the country and of also failing to collect reliable data on air quality and health threats.

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The report laments the “systematic dismantling” of Durban’s sophisticated air pollution monitoring and control system, set up with funding from the Norwegian government in 2003 and once hailed as a blueprint to help other cities improve air quality.

Instead, Durban’s “world-class” air pollution control unit had been allowed to fall apart over the past four years because of a series of staff cuts initiated by eThekwini municipality health head Nomakhosi Gxagxisa, the report said.

However, in a response last night, the city’s communications department denied that the city’s air quality unit was “in a state of collapse” and said it was going to be expanded.

Compiled by the environmental justice group groundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights and community groups living next to large industrial areas, the report alleges the Durban unit was dismantled from 2011 onwards, allegedly with the support of senior city managers.

Proposed staff cuts of nearly 75 percent had prompted the resignation of unit head Siva Chetty and several other experienced technicians.

While it was alleged that Gxagxisa did not view air pollution as a priority and wanted to focus on primary health care instead, other sources suggested that industry groups in South Durban had lobbied for the unit to be weakened.

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“Whatever the reason, Gxagxisa could not have ripped into this unit without the knowledge and consent of senior city managers,” stated the report.

While the unit still existed on paper, the report claims it remained grossly under-staffed, with no permanent senior leader and often unable to produce validated air pollution reports.

Health study

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“This is a failed system which no longer has the means of assessing whether industry is complying with the law.”

Rico Euripidou, groundWork’s environmental health campaigner, said the Durban unit was set up after decades of pressure from communities living next to petrol refineries, paper makers and other heavy industry south of Durban.

It was also part of the so-named Multi Point Plan to reduce air pollution in South Durban, which included a R7-million health study that found nearly half the pupils of a primary school in Merebank were suffering from asthma and other breathing problems.

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Euripidou said until-2011, community groups had online access to real-time data on the air they breathed in South Durban, but now had to seek permission from eThekwini and the SA Weather Service to access such data.

In its response, the municipality said the unit was going to add another four air monitoring stations at a cost of R8m.

It was also spending another R2.5m to refurbish air analysing equipment and a further R2.4m to review the city’s air quality management plan.

A new specialist section was also being set up to process atmospheric emission licences.

Responding to criticism that Durban’s air pollution data was no longer available online, the city said this data was available through a national information system known as the SA Air Quaility Information System.

The city said releasing its own data to “numerous parties on an ad hoc basis was not cost- effective”, adding that the unit did have a permanent senior manager.

Elsewhere in the country, said groundWork researcher David Hallowes, the government was also failing to protect the health of citizens from high levels of industrial pollution, especially in the Vaal Triangle and Mpumalanga Highveld region.

He charged that Eskom was being used as a “corporate battering ram” to weaken new pollution control standards.

The national power utility had applied for exemption from minimum pollution control requirements at most of its coal-fired power stations, an example that was being followed by several large industries around the country.

“We think that the state of collapse of the country’s air quality control regime is something that should be of concern to all South Africans, but we are not holding our breath about getting back on track.”

The Mercury

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