270308. Eskom and Load shedding... An early morning picture taken at Matla Power Station in Mpumalanga Province. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Durban - Three environmental watchdog groups have slammed the government’s decision to exempt several Eskom power stations and heavy industries from stricter air pollution laws for another five years.

They warned that the postponements were likely to come at a heavy cost to human lifespans, leading to as many as 19 000 premature deaths nationwide from lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness in coming decades.

The Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthlife Africa and groundWork were responding to the decision by Environment Minister Edna Molewa to postpone the compliance time frames for air pollution laws for several Eskom power stations, petrol refineries, cement makers and platinum smelters.

The Engen refinery in south Durban, which is surrounded by low- to middle-income communities, has also been given special dispensation allowing it to pollute the air with dust and volatile organic chemicals in excess of new Air Quality Act minimum standards.

Molewa said her decision was based on her desire “to ensure balance” between economic growth and the health of people and the environment. But the three environmental groups, which work closely with communities living next to big industry pollution areas, accused Molewa of showing “complete disregard” for her constitutional duty to protect the health of South Africans.

“We are extremely disappointed with the Department of Environmental Affairs decision to simply allow Eskom to continue to pollute in excess of what has been agreed as safe standards of emissions for another five years.”

Despite knowing since 2004 that they would be required to meet tighter pollution standards from April 1, 2015, Eskom and other large industries had chosen to push for postponements.

The three groups cited a health impact study by Greenpeace pollution and energy researcher Lauri Myllyvirta last year, which suggested that exempting the majority of Eskom power stations would lead to about 20 000 premature deaths over the next few decades from lung cancer, strokes, heart and lung disease or respiratory infection.

Myllyvirta said, having examined the postponement approvals granted this week, he believed that his previous excess death predictions might drop to about 19 000 premature deaths.

If Eskom was compelled to comply with sulphur dioxide emission limits at the Kendal and Matimba power stations before 2025, then excess premature deaths might be reduced to about 16 000 people.

Myllyvirta said one of his main concerns was that Molewa’s decision had been presented as a “temporary postponement” when it was more likely that the postponements would turn into “an indefinite licence to pollute”.

He also said the government seemed to have developed a “massive blind spot”, ignoring how air pollution was transported over very long distances to damage human health in places far removed from the source of emissions.

Bobby Peek, head of groundWork, said: “No one disputes Eskom is in crisis. But the costs of compliance with minimum emission standards cannot trump other considerations.

“For too long, government, Eskom and other polluting industries have failed to account properly for the devastating health impacts and costs of air pollution.”

Molewa’s office was invited to comment on Myllyvirta’s health impact predictions but said it was not in a position to respond until Thursday.

The Mercury