The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has come under fire from environmental groups for "secretly" doubling the permissible emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) without public consultation.

On Friday, the Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle Campaign, in a letter to new Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, urged the DEA to withdraw the new amendment that effectively weakens SO2 emissions - by December 10 or it will go to the High Court.

"The effect of this amendment is to double the permissible emissions of SO2 - from 500mg/Nm3 to 1000Nm3 in respect of existing plants that are solid fuel installations (which include all of Eskom's coal-fired stations, as well as Sasol's coal-fired boilers)," explained Robyn Hugo, an attorney and programme head at the Centre for Environmental Rights' pollution and climate change unit, which is part of the campaign.

"In other words, the existing SO2 standard has been made twice as weak. This in circumstances where the public was afforded no opportunity to comment on this amendment." 

The campaign had previously addressed a similar letter to acting Environmental Affairs Minister on November 8, "to which no response has been received".

Last week, Parliament’s portfolio committee on environmental Affairs expressed unhappiness over the amendment to the List of Activities and associated Minimum Emission Standards (MES), published on October 31. 

There, the chairperson of the committee, Mohlopi Mapulane, remained concerned that the committee had not been informed of this change.

"The Chair and some MPs expressed grave concern over this, particularly as the portfolio committee earlier in the year called for the establishment of an expert panel to look into addressing the SO2 problem, and DEA never did this; instead unilaterally amending the MES,"said Hugo.

Vumile Senene, assistant director of air quality regulation at the DEA, told the committee that it was not a "blanket increase".

He cited water demand and difficulties for Sasol and Eskom to comply with the previous limit.

"After a detailed analysis and looking at technologies available we reached conclusion with current available technology that 1000mg/Nm3 would be a fair limit ... It's not a blanket increase and is specific to which facilities it applies to."

Greenpeace Africa said last week it had unveiled additional data in the parliamentary hearing showing how Mpumalanga was a "massive SO2 hotspot" as well as the world's worst nitrogen dioxide hotspot.

“Mr Mohlopi Mapulane, the chair of the portfolio committee has made it clear that something extraordinary must be done to deal with the air pollution problem in Mpumalanga, and that the committee has a significant problem with the weakening of SO2 Minimum Emission Standards in SA and the department cannot proceed with weakening the standards," it said.