File photo: Siphiwe Sibeko

Eskom’s request for a five-year postponement for its coal-fired power stations to meet minimum emission standards will cause 20 000 premature deaths from dangerous air pollution emissions, including those of 1 600 children, during the remaining life of its plants.

This figure is contained in a hard-hitting health-risk assessment report by Lauri Myllyvirta, an air pollution specialist with Greenpeace International, which has found that Eskom’s application for postponement of compliance with minimum emissions standards for power plants – 14 of which are coal-fired – will lead to “dramatically higher air pollution emissions for decades”.

Eskom, which has been hit with more than R3 million in fines for illegal activities since 2009, has applied for the postponement of compliance to meet existing plant standards by April 1 next year and stricter new plant standards by April 1, 2020.

All applications to postpone compliance with 2015 standards must be submitted to the national air quality officer by the end of this month.

But Myllyvirta believed the economic cost associated with the premature deaths and the neurotoxic effects of mercury exposure would be at least R220 billion. In her study, she found air pollution emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants had already caused as many as 2 200 premature deaths a year, including the deaths of 200 children exposed to fine particulate matter.

“While in reality, any air pollution emissions cause negative health impacts, Eskom’s position is that as long as particulate matter levels are below the national standard, or as long as they are not the most important polluter causing an exceedance of the standards, there are absolutely no public health effects from their pollution,” she told the Saturday Star, from Indonesia, this week.

“This is absurd… There simply is no way you can put millions of tons of toxic pollutants into the environment and cause no health impacts or negligible health impacts.

“It seems absolutely ludicrous that this kind of a decision, that will affect air pollution and health risks faced by South Africans for decades, could be done without a health impact assessment and be based on documents that deny or ignore fundamental scientific knowledge of the health impacts of air pollution.”

If the government allowed Eskom to exceed air pollution standards, Myllyvirta estimated the effects of the excess emissions of mercury – a potent neurotoxin – would cause a projected loss of 45 00 IQ points each year.

The non-compliance of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants with the minimum emission standards would allow an estimated 28 million tons of excess sulphur dioxide, 2.9 million tons of nitrogen oxides, 560 000 tons of particulate matter and 210 tons of toxic mercury over the remaining life of its plants.

Albi Modise, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs, could not comment on the Greenpeace report, but said Eskom was required to conduct a full atmospheric impact report under the Air Quality Act with its applications.

“It’s expected the impact report will have an assessment of the associated health impacts of all scenarios included in the applications.

“Eskom’s applications have not been lodged with the department yet, so it is not known whether Eskom has done the health assessment.”

The department had to consider all applications lodged according to the legal framework, but this did not mean “all applications will receive positive responses”.

“All decisions made will be in line with the department’s constitutional mandate to give effect to (legislation) to enhance the quality of ambient air for the sake of securing an environment that is not harmful to the health and well-being of people. However, it is important to note that air quality problems are not limited to industrial emissions.”

Rico Euripidou, an environmental health campaigner at lobby group groundWork, said Eskom’s applications for rolling postponements would cost taxpayers “hundreds of billions more than compliance will cost Eskom”.

Saturday Star