Destruction of the Highveld

Published Nov 25, 2017


Miriet Madida sits quietly on a worn chair inside her neat, tiny shack as black dust billows in from her open window. The 68-year-old’s home looks spotless, but Madida knows it won’t last long.

“The dust covers everything,” she says, wearily, straining her eyes clouded with milky cataracts. “It gets inside even when I keep the window closed.”

But it’s her persistent cough that worries her daughter, Phumzile, whose T-shirt is smeared with dust.

“Since we came here my mom is always at the clinic,” she says, showing the dust tainting her stack of water containers. “I think it’s because of all this dust we have to breathe all the time. It’s everywhere.”

Both mother and daughter live in a huddle of shacks in Ackerville in Ferrobank, eMalahleni’s industrial heartland.

Their home is in the hulking shadow of Samancor’s Ferrometals plant, which fills the grey skyline. Alongside it, a dark vanadium slag heap looms over the impoverished region, while an assortment of other industries and steel smelters operate nearby.

For decades, the residents of Mpumalanga’s Highveld - which has eMalahleni, the “place of coal” at its dirty core - have been “subjected to horrific pollution” and have had to “carry the burden” of South Africa’s coal-based electricity and industrial systems.

The lure of coal power has turned the agriculture-rich region into a wasteland, says environmental justice non-profit organisation groundWork in its new report, The Destruction of the Highveld: Call for a Just Transition.

“On the Mpumalanga Highveld the burning of coal has enclosed the commons of atmosphere, making it a dirty industrial drain in the sky. An essential element of life - air to breathe - has been enclosed, and there’s no alternative for people who live on the Highveld, but to breathe in these pollutants and watch the environments they live and work in deteriorate.”

The report, released this week, follows from a groundWork report last year which focused on the politics and impact of coal mining on the Highveld, which includes the heavily polluted region of Ekurhuleni.

This second instalment details the power stations, petrochemical and metallurgical plants that burn coal; the massive amounts of pollutants released into the Highveld air and the impact on people; the fight for clean air; and the “slow and partial responses to this growing environmental health crisis by a reluctant regulator”.

It was exactly a decade ago this month, and after years of pressure from civil society, that the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) declared the Highveld the country’s second air quality priority area.

But there’s been little change in the air, writes groundWork director Bobby Peek in the report’s foreword.

“We have government admitting that air quality management has not delivered any improvement in air quality and hence has done nothing to protect people.”

The DEA’s own draft mid-term review has found, too, that air quality remains poor on the Highveld, with numerous instances of air quality standards being exceeded.

The groundWork report details how warnings that the Highveld was unsuitable for polluting activities were made decades ago, yet Eskom concentrated 12 of its 15 coal fired power stations on the Highveld, Sasol runs its giant refinery in Secunda, and hundreds of coal mines and chemical producers dominate the area.

“Metal industries - steel and ferrometals - have developed on the Highveld since the 1960s as a complex of undertakings driven largely by Anglo American’s investments,” write the authors, David Hallowes and Victor Munnik.

“This complex has since disintegrated and passed into the hands of Russian oligarchs and ‘business rescuers’ who have dumped both workers and environmental legacies.

“The huge mountain of vanadium and other waste in Ferrobank, next to the still-burning Transvaal and Delagoa Bay colliery, stands as a symbol of corporate carelessness.”

The devastation of the Highveld’s atmosphere would not have been possible without “lax regulation by the state”, charges groundWork.

Poor, vulnerable communities pay the price. “This carelessly created dirty air imposes extensive externalities on the people who live on the Highveld.

“It affects people’s health in almost all body systems: lungs, heart and circulation, nervous system and reproductive systems. It imposes diseases, shortens lives, and reduces the ability to work, find work or just perform daily activities.”

Pollution is deadly. A groundbreaking report published by the prestigious Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health last month revealed the “severe and under-reported” contribution of air, water, soil and workplace pollution to the global burden of disease.

Pollution accounts for a staggering nine million premature deaths each year, three times more than Aids, malaria and TB combined. Of these deaths, the commission says air pollution ranks as the biggest killer, leading to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and other illnesses, while its link to diabetes and dementia is still being probed.

In South Africa, research by air quality expert Dr Mike Holland, commissioned by groundWork, has revealed how pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations kills more than 2200 South Africans every year, causes thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually, and costs the country more than R30billion. Eskom has described Holland’s figures as exaggerated.

Dust, says the groundWork report, is most strongly associated with the big metal smelters in Middelburg and eMalahleni from ever-present slag heaps and waste dumps.

“Fine particulates produced by the furnaces are most dangerous as they penetrate deep into people’s lungs and then into their blood.”

Workers get a “double dose” of pollutants - at work and then at home. Like Nthabiseng Shabangu, who worked at the Highveld Steel plant, and used to live in Section 14.

“People there suffer constant nose bleeds - particularly the children. When we visit family in Limpopo, you can feel that you are breathing a different air. And the children’s nose bleeds stop.”

She moved to Tasbet Park, about 20km away, to escape the pollution. The air was a little cleaner, but her family were close to Anglo’s Greenside and Landau coal mines on the edge of town. “There is nowhere to escape in eMalahleni,” she says.

The report documents how, 60 years ago, scientists pointed out that the Highveld was a particularly bad place to burn coal because of the dynamics of the atmosphere. While the dispersion of pollution needs turbulent skies and strong mixing winds, the opposite is the case on the Highveld: it has a stable atmosphere, clear skies and low wind speeds.

That’s why a CSIR and Wits University review from 1988 warned how the Highveld is an area in which “a large amount of pollution is injected into an atmosphere as unfavourable for its dispersion as that found anywhere in southern Africa. Indeed, the Highveld dispersion climatology must rate as among the most unfavourable anywhere in the world.”

Yet, it did not stop the massive increase of coal-fired power stations, chemical industries and a complex of metal industries, says the report.

And this, coupled with a neglect of health research and the absence of programmes to “soften” the impacts on communities, has kept the real cost of externalities imposed on the Highveld “out of focus and decision making”.

“This is the intellectual and bureaucratic equivalent of a system of medical professionals that denied and obscured the health impacts in the workplace.”

The report is the latest in a list of publications from NGOs and government that show how air pollution governance is failing on the Highveld, like last month’s report, Broken Promises, by the Centre for Environmental Rights.

GroundWork details how it took more than decade to improve air quality in polluted areas to move the DEA to create both ambient and emission standards, intended to become progressively stricter.

“But, as the new standards tightened up on air pollution, the two biggest polluters on the Highveld - Eskom and Sasol - applied for postponements from the regulator to comply, postponements that may be rolled over and so they could effectively become exemptions.”

And so the same problems persist. “Industry makes decisions about its own pollution control, health impacts are still not properly researched; ecosystem impacts, such as acid rain, are only beginning to be recognised, there is an enduring lack of capacity within government so air quality continues to deteriorate.”

The region needs a new energy system with jobs based in renewables, as well as the large-scale restoration and detoxification of land and ecosystems “injured by the fossil fuel economy”.

From his home in Ackerville, Daniel Skosana, a retired coal truck driver, and his wife recognise the vanadium dust settling on their furniture because it’s “black and shiny.

“When we blow our noses, it comes out black on the tissue. We’re always coughing. You don’t know who to blame,” he says.

The weekly blasting from a new coal mine rattles his house. “The whole house shakes.”

Community responses that Nomcebo Makhubelo of the Highveld Environmental Justice Network found in eMalahleni for the report were mirrored in Secunda and Middelburg.

“The people on the Highveld all have common problems: dust, water pollution, cracking houses, and being relocated by coal mines without proper procedures.

“You can’t be putting all these coal mines, power stations and industries and then fail to monitor how they are affecting communities.”

We do comply - Sasol and Eskom

The Department of Environmental Affairs says the desired improvements in air quality on the Highveld “will not happen over a short period of time” as experiences from the UK and the US have indicated.

The decision to grant postponements in 2015 from compliance with the minimum emission standards (MES) to Eskom and Sasol’s facilities was “informed by the challenges facing the airshed in the priority areas and considered some interventions that can address these challenges”.

Earlier this month, Eskom told a portfolio committee on environmental affairs’ workshop on the MES that they are needed to reduce the harmful health effects of air pollution.

“Power stations generally comply with the MES at the moment, but from 2020 will need to complete emission abatement retrofits and be granted postponements to remain in compliance.

“Particulate emissions from power stations have reduced by more than an order of magnitude in the last 30 years, but there has been no significant change to SO2 or NOx emissions.

The Saturday Star

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