File image: Research has shown how Eskom's coal-fired power stations cause 2 239 deaths per year.

In the early 1990s Bobby Peek, while challenging polluting oil refineries in South Durban, heard of the burning coal mines of Witbank, now Emalahleni.

The environmental justice activist would witness it for himself towards the turn of the century. 

"As Nnimmo Bassey (Nigerian environmental activist) has said, it's hell. I witnessed the red glow of rocks heated by the fires. I saw the shimmer in the air as poison gasses escaped into the air we were breathing. It brought back the memories of the ground flares in the Niger Delta that I visited."

There, he writes, corporates are "too greedy to invest in recapturing the gasses that escape from the oil wells and the flames and shimmer of poisoned gasses is what people have to live with".

It's the same on the Mpumalanga Highveld, writes Peek, the director of groundWork, "an area that is being devastated by mining and the inability of government to hold corporations accountable, despite the evidence of culpability".

Peek's sentiments are contained in a new report that was released on Monday, Coal Kills, Research and Dialogue for a Just Transition.

GroundWork, a non-profit environmental justice service and developmental organisation, says the report is a first-ever compilation of local research "highlighting the damage that coal causes". 

groundWork is a partner of the Life After Coal joint campaign, with Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER).

The Coal Kills report is a consolidation of a number of reports from different organisations. "It's impossible," notes Peek, to "publish all the  research we found on coal impacts in Mpumalanga".

The report was presented to Parliament's energy committee hearing on Tuesday on the draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), an electricity plan, which GroundWork believes "appears oblivious" to the immediate urgency of responding to climate change. 

"South Africans can create another energy future based on renewables or we can go tied down to the old energy model," says groundWork. "This is the model of the 'minerals energy complex' that has shaped South Africa's development for over a century. It's based on cheap coal, cheap labour and heavy duty pollution. It is unsustainable economically and is socially and environmentally catastrophic. It is now collapsing. Coal Kills provides the evidence."

The Highveld, Peek writes, is fertile land, referred to as the bread basket of the country, where 54% of the country's viable agricultural land is situated. It is also one of the main areas from which much of SA's fresh water flows.

"All of this is being destroyed. In the process of this destruction, the people are dying because of air pollution from coal-fired facilities and mines. Despite tomes of evidence, government is failing to act ...

"Unemployment grows as coal mining companies abandon mines and flee with rehabilitation funds and leave behind ruined land, sick workers and poverty. "Mining, the burning of coal, the making of liquid fuel from coal and the smelting of metal, have not brought prosperity to the people of Mpumalanga."

That no action has been taken against coal companies that "destroy people and their land" is no surprise, Peek believes.

"Both the apartheid and the democratic SA government and political elite have been tied by the hip to coal, just as the politicians and the oil companies in in Nigeria are ... It is so often heard that SA needs coal to alleviate poverty and provide energy for the poor ...

"When you walk around black working class neighbourhoods, and informal settlements on the Highveld, you have to ask the question: 'Does coal really respond to this critical challenge that the SA government is facing?' No." 

The compilation of the research summarises nine studies from groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA, CER, Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals), UK-based air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland and Wits University's Society, Work and Development Institute, among others, and provides links to several other coal studies.

The report was motivated by the-then chair of the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs, Jackson Mthembu, an ex-worker in the steel mills of the Highveld, while on a toxic tour "around the burning mines and streams of toxic acid mine drainage with the portfolio committee in August 2015. This was together with Life after Coal campaign and affected community members.

"He (Mthembu) asked for local research to highlight the evidence of the impact, rather than focusing on international studies .... We thought it was plain to see but we started to look around and do our own research.  What we found was not surprising. People were not living well and the land was being destroyed."

This report cites the Destruction of the Highveld report by groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA, which chronicles the ruin of land, water, dust and smoke and the harm to people on Mpumalanga's Highveld.

"The torrent of pollution pours over the whole region. Thousands of people die and many thousands are made ill. Black working class communities get it in the face. Emalahleni's townships are surrounded by coal mines and big metal plants - Ferrometals, anchem, Silicon, Smelters, Transalloys and Highveld Steel. "People complain of burning eyes, inflamed sinuses, headaches and lung infections. 

"Winter is the worst time of the year and nights are worse than days. People think that plant managers switch off pollution controls at night. Everyone sleeps with their windows closed but the pollution gets in anyway. Many use purifiers or nebulisers or on oxygen.  

"From mining to the burning of coal, profits are extracted and people are left with poisoned land, water and air. Sadly, but not unexpectedly ... government  does very little to defend people in an age of promised democracy and with a Constitution that promises much but cannot deliver for those in political power have no will to deliver."
Another report, Zero Hour, by the CER, found how by 2014, 61% of the surface area of Mpumalanga fell under prospecting and mining right applications and how on the Highveld, air quality is among the worst in the world. 

Elizabeth Malibe in Arbor on Mpumalanga's Highveld is fighting coal mines that are causing pollution and destroying residents' homes. Credit: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA Pictures.

Regulation by the two departments with primary responsibility for mining - the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Water and Sanitation - has been poor. "Communities and the natural environment are paying an indefensibly high price as a consequence," stated the CER.

Another CER report released last year, Broken Promises, found that air quality in the Highveld Priority Area remains poor and out of compliance with health-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards a decade since the priority area was declared.

Coal Kills cites research by Holland, who assessed the health impacts and associated economic costs of current emissions of just one type of pollutant from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations (PM2.5), finding that Eskom emissions cause more than 2 200 equivalent attributable deaths every year, and thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually. 

Holland estimates the annual health cost from PM2.5 emissions alone is about R28 billion per year. This excludes, among others, health impacts associated with other combustion pollutants, mining and transport of coal, contamination of water and impacts from blasting, notes Holland.

Governments elsewhere have acted on coal. "There are cases where coal bans have been introduced (for example Dublin and Hong Kong) and studies have subsequently shown an improvement in health. People's health and Constitutional rights are also assaulted as Eskom does not meet environmental standards that are protective of people's health and well being. Air pollution standards of very weak, even compared to developing countries," writes Holland. 

The Coal Kills report, too, cites research on social and labour plans by Cals, which found that communities do not have access to social and labour plans - a plan of how mines will benefit workers, the communities they come from and live in as well as communities residing near mines. 

Communities, too, are not part of developing these plans, they do not target women and government departments do not work together well, Cals found.

Peek writes that he hopes the Coal Kills report "will be used by community people to challenge the status quo; by parliament as evidence to consider how they respond to the impacts of coal on the Highveld and coal in general; and by workers to start thinking and working with community people on the Highveld and in other coal areas in SA to plan for life after coal."