Pretoria - Every day people living and working on the Mpumalanga Highveld are breathing toxic, polluted air that is harmful to their health and well-being. This is a violation of their Constitutional rights.
This has been the argument this week in a virtual hearing before the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, in the so-called Deadly Air Case, brought by the environmental justice group Groundwork Trust and the Vukani Environmental Justice Alliance.
The case concerns the toxic levels of ambient air pollution caused by coal-fired power generation projects in the Highveld priority area, situated in Mpumalanga.
The environmental groups are asking for an order declaring that the levels of air pollution in the area are in breach of the constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being.
Lawyers for Human Rights represents Professor David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Environment, has intervened as a friend of the court.
He has been admitted in order to provide relevant evidence, based on expert opinion, on the adverse impacts of air pollution and the enjoyment of human rights.
Boyd made submissions regarding international and regional human rights law and instruments, and emphasised to the court that poor and marginalised communities disproportionately shoulder the burden of toxic air.
Community organisations advocate for clean air as they feel that the government's response in addressing this life-threatening situation has been insignificant.
The applicants are asking the court to declare that the dangerous levels of ambient (outdoor) air pollution in the Highveld Priority area constitutes a violation of the constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health or well-being.
They also want to force the government to develop effective regulations to properly implement and enforce the Highveld Priority area’s Quality Management Plan.
GroundWork and the Vukani Environmental Movement, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, launched this constitutional litigation in 2019.
It said that according to Finland-based research organisation Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, South Africa – particularly the Mpumalanga Highveld – was one of the most polluted areas in the world.
According to the organisation, approximately 4.5 million people who live in the Highveld Area are daily breathing toxic, polluted air that is adversely affecting their health and well-being.
They want the government to enforce the law and ensure the people of the Highveld have access to clean air.
These groups say that air pollution exacerbates a number of fatal diseases, and communities in this area remain at high risk of acute and chronic health effects due to long-term exposure to this polluted air.
In addition, they say, air pollution increases fatalities due to Covid-19, as the community suffers from comorbidities caused by pollutants.
The environmental groups asked the court to declare that the environmental minister has a legal duty to prescribe regulations to give legal effect to the Highveld air quality management plan.
According to the environmental groups, the government is simply ignoring the rights of people working and living on the Highveld by failing to reduce the deadly levels of air pollution.
They say the government urgently needs to take steps to deal with the pollution and to improve the quality of human lives in the area.
Boyd said in court papers that fine particulate air pollution – tiny particles of soot, black carbon, sulphates, nitrates and heavy metals that are breathed into the lungs and passed into the bloodstream – is the single largest environmental risk to human health.
Environmental Minister Barbara Creecy has said in her opposing papers that she is acutely aware of the problem.
She said the people working and living in the affected area had her as well as “every official” in her department’s sympathy.
But Creecy said that since taking office, she has done everything in her power to address the issue. According to her, the eradication of air pollution is one of her priorities and it is receiving the necessary attention.