Emissions from 13 of Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power stations cause 333 premature deaths per year at a health cost of R17.6 billion.
This was the submission made by Eskom to the portfolio committee on environmental affairs last week based on a cost-benefit analysis and health impact assessment study it had commissioned.
Eskom would need to retrofit seven power stations now if were to comply with South Africa’s Minimum Emission Standards (MES) at a cost of R187 billion capital expenditure and other costs.
“Essentially, their repeated message is that spending money to retrofit its stations (and to save lives) is simply too expensive and the benefits do not outweigh the costs and economic impacts (for Eskom and the country),” said attorney Robyn Hugo, programme head for pollution and climate change at the Centre for Environmental Rights.
“Of course, South Africa, and the people in the Highveld, in particular, are already paying the high external health and environmental costs of air pollution.”
Research by international air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland has found that air pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations alone – from only one type of pollutant it emits (particulate matter or PM2.5) – is responsible for the equivalent deaths of more than 2 200 people in South Africa a year and thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually.
Eskom told the committee its study showed 8.7 million people were being exposed to particulate matter, NO2 and sulphur dioxide.Particulate matter (PM2.5) was the pollutant that had the highest impact on human health.
“It is also true that there are residential areas on the Highveld that do experience concentrations of PM2.5 that exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards at certain times of the year," Eskom told the Saturday Star.
“It has to be acknowledged, however, that the bulk of the PM2.5 emissions in these regions with high health impacts are emitted by low level sources such veld fires and domestic combustion of coal for cooking and heating and not from Eskom power stations.”
Hugo said: “Eskom and Sasol both essentially argued (in the Parliamentary hearing) that their emissions are not problematic; that domestic sources are the main health concern.
"Neither Eskom nor the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) disputed the evidence we put up to show that, in a 21-month period, there had been almost 3 200 exceedances of emission standards in Eskom’s atmospheric emission licence conditions for 13 Eskom stations.”
This non-compliance was a criminal offence, but the DEA had taken no enforcement action against Eskom. It is applying for the fourth time to delay its compliance with
the MES for 11 of its coal fired power stations – in 2015, it was granted widespread postponements of deadlines to meet the MES.
Eskom said that the main reasons for delays in meeting the MES were because timelines had moved.
"Some of Eskom’s previously committed timelines for technology installation have moved back by one to three years. Delays in planning, approval and commercial processes have caused delays in the dates originally outlined for abatement retrofits at Medupi, Majuba, Tutuka and Matla.
"No delays were however incurred for the Grootvlei FFP installation, and so, since 2017, Grootvlei’s abatement technology retrofit was successfully completed. Additionally,
work has successfully been completed on Duvha and Camden to reduce PM and NOx emissions, respectively.
"The commercial and approval processes including PFMA for Tutuka have been completed. The Medupi application has been submitted to DPE and Treasury for approval,
progress has been made in finding funding and the internal procurement processes are progressing well. The other stations including Matla, Kriel, Lethabo, Majuba and Duvha
have progressed with internal approvals and are at different stages of procurement," Eskom stated.
Albi Modise, spokesperson for the DEA, said postponements were legally provided for in the legislation – as a transitional measure towards compliance.
“Each application received would be considered on its merits.” Air pollution was a complex problem and couldn’t “be solved by focusing on a few sources”, he said. “Significant progress has been made… with many facilities demonstrating improvements in managing emissions from their facilities." South Africa, he said, was dealing with historic air quality management deficiencies that had, over many decades, resulted in the formation of air quality hotspots in parts of the country. “Despite this, ambient air quality data collected by the department’s network in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA) indicates that there have been notable improvements in particulate matter 2.5 and PM10 levels in monitoring sites such as Ermelo, Hendrina and Middelburg. “While for 2015 and 2016, Secunda and Emalahle sites showed a reversal of the improvements that had been realised since 2008, and SO2 (sulphur dioxide) concentrations have also shown improvements across all the five monitoring stations in the HPA.” But despite this observed downward trend, the ambient air quality had not reached desired levels. "The reality is that the desired improvements will not happen over a short period of time. Experience from countries such as the UK and the US indicates the path to reaching desired air quality level takes time and effort, and can be in excess of 20 years, as has been the case in the US.”