Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Matla power station, a coal-fired power plant in Mpumalanga. Picture: Reuters
Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Matla power station, a coal-fired power plant in Mpumalanga. Picture: Reuters

Environmental groups take on government over constitutional right to clean air

By Zelda Venter Time of article published Nov 16, 2020

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Pretoria - The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe and clean environment will join the groundbreaking air pollution case in which NGOs are taking on the government.

David Boyd has been admitted as a friend of the court in the legal battle in which environmental groups are taking on the government over the constitutional right to clean air.

Boyd was assisted by Lawyers for Human Rights in his Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, application to be joined in the proceedings. The main case is only due in court in May.

The case, which was brought by the environmental justice group Groundwork Trust and the Vukani Environmental Justice Alliance, concerns the toxic levels of ambient air pollution caused by coal-fired power generation projects in the Highveld priority area, situated in Mpumalanga.

The Special Rapporteur 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.

The environmental groups will ask 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.

They will also ask 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.

The court will hear arguments, for instance, that living in eMalahleni, which is said to be one of the most polluted areas in the country, has a huge effect on the health of the residents.

According to the environmental groups, the government is simply ignoring the rights of people working and living on the Highveld by failing to improve 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.

In his application to join the fray, 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 pass into the bloodstream – is the single largest environmental risk to human health.

Boyd, an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia, said: “Air pollution is the deadliest environmental problem in the world today, causing millions of deaths annually, yet it is also a problem amenable to well-known solutions.”

He added that “the long-standing failure of a government to improve air quality, especially when it has failed to act with the requisite degree of urgency in the face of long-term breaching of national air quality standards, is a violation of the right to a healthy environment.”

This is particularly true when the victims of air pollution are marginalised and vulnerable communities, including children and people living in poverty, Boyd said.

It will be argued in the main application that poor air quality has implications for a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, food, housing and an adequate standard of living.

Lawyers for Human Rights has meanwhile welcomed the fact that Boyd will assist in the upcoming court case to share his expertise in assessing the links between pollution and human rights.

Pretoria News

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