Sasol's Secunda plant.

Cape Town - Petrochemicals giant Sasol, one of the country’s big polluters, is taking the government to court in a bid to have stricter new air pollution laws scrapped.

Critics say if Sasol wins, it will set the country back 20 years in attempts to curb toxic emissions – and will pave the way for other big polluting industries not to clean up their acts. Sasol’s industries operate in pollution hot spots on the Highveld which the government has declared “high priority areas” because of high levels of air pollution.

Sasol Synfuels, Sasol Infrachem and Natref – a joint venture between Sasol Oil and Total South Africa – have lodged papers with the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria to have certain of the emission requirement regulations reviewed and set aside. The standards place a cap on toxic emissions that may have a “significant detrimental effect” on the environment, human health and socio-economic conditions.

There are two sets of new standards that would apply to Sasol: a less stringent set for their older, existing plants, which comes into effect on April 1, and a stricter set for new plants which comes into effect on April 1, 2020.

Sasol’s court action is against the minister of Water and Environmental Affairs and the National Air Quality Officer.

Sasol has argued in court papers that some of these emission standards are unlawful, as the minister did not follow the correct procedures under the 2007 National Framework.

It has also argued that installing some of the equipment to clean up emissions would require a long lead time while installing others would not be “reasonable or feasible in the South African context”.

There had been lengthy consultation between the government, industry and the public prior to the emissions being set. In 2009 the environment department’s director of air quality management had said since agreement could not be reached, the department was taking over the process. Sasol contends that this should have been the role of the technical committee.

Sasol also argues that the department had failed to do a cost benefit-analysis before publishing the stricter regulations or to consider the technical feasibility and socio-economic consequences of the new laws. While the cost of installing new equipment would be very high, this was unlikely to improve air quality significantly.

Sasol’s legal action comes after the company had applied for a postponement in complying with the new regulations.

Company spokesman Alex Anderson said on Thursday Sasol proposed to implement its own emission limits, based on an independent report.

“Pursuing the review proceedings is a last resort. The company’s preference has always been to engage constructively with the department to achieve reasonable, effective and sustainable minimum emission standards,” Anderson said.

Angela Andrews of the Legal Resources Centre described some of Sasol’s emissions as “significant and toxic”.

“Sasol operates in pollution hot spots. It is a very successful company and has spent a lot of money on improving their profitability, but has not spent anything like an adequate amount on limiting their impact on the environment and human health. If Sasol wins this court challenge it will perpetuate negative health outcomes for people who live in their pollution footprint.”

Tristen Taylor of Earthlife Africa said Sasol’s challenge placed the entire new set of air pollution regulations under threat.

“We’ve worked out that it would cost Sasol R25 billion to comply. Last year Sasol made a profit of R40bn. They could do the right thing and still have a R15bn annual profit. They are morally obliged to put back after all the public money that has been spent on Sasol over decades. Now the public is going to have to continue to bear the costs of Sasol’s pollution.

“These laws are not stringent. Sasol’s new plant in Louisiana will have to meet higher standards. Sasol will comply in the US, but are happy to continue polluting in Africa. There is no way that is morally justifiable,” Taylor said.

The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs was approached for comment, but did not respond.

Cape Times