As the helicopter flew over the coal mining town of Ogies, near eMalahleni, an image came to Nhlanhla Sibisi’s mind: the fictional wasteland of Mordor, depicted in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Sibisi pointed out vast swathes of once-arable land, blackened by massive open-cast coal mining operations and yellow-orange water pooling in pits.
“This is what I usually refer to as Mordor. The deeper you go, it’s just coal mines on the left and on the right,” explained the climate and energy campaigner from Greenpeace Africa. There’s all this lush land, but you can see how it’s been eaten with all this toxicity.”
Sibisi was leading an aerial “toxic tour” over Eskom’s coal-fired power stations on the Mpumalanga Highveld earlier this month. The three-hour flight was to visually illustrate Greenpeace Africa’s recent analysis, which used new European satellite data to show how Mpumalanga is the globe's largest nitrogen dioxide (NO2) hotspot across six continents.
The dense cluster of Eskom’s “ancient” and “highly polluting” coal-fired power stations – 12 are located in Mpumalanga – make it the dirtiest cluster of coal-fired power stations in the world, according to Greenpeace Africa. This is coupled with South Africa's weak Minimum Emission Standards (MES), that Eskom is failing to comply with.
"...Air pollution levels in Mpumalanga and the Highveld coal cluster are the highest in the world and require urgent attention, not further postponements from complying with relatively weak air quality legislation."
The data, gleaned from satellite imagery from June 1 to August 31 this year, singled out coal and transport as the principle sources of air pollution in Mpumalanga, with the environmental lobby group stating that the proximity of Joburg and Pretoria and regular east winds left “eight million people in both cities highly affected by extreme NO2 pollution levels”.
The heavily-mined Mpumalanga Highveld is among South Africa’s industrial heartlands and one of three air quality priority areas where air quality remains poor, say experts.
The region is also home to Sasol’s giant refinery in Secunda, an assortment of metal smelters; hundreds of coal mines; brick and stone works; fertiliser and chemical producers; explosive producers; charcoal producers and other small additional industrial operations.
As the helicopter flew through the heavy haze of smog blanketing the region, Sibisi’s nostrils burned from the acrid, sulphuric fumes. “Looking at the satellite photos is very static, but with the helicopter view, you’re seeing and smelling what the people who live on the Highveld are breathing in daily.”
On Wednesday, the Greenpeace report was at the centre of a hearing by the Parliamentary portfolio committee on environmental affairs on the state of poor air quality and lack of compliance with the MES.
There the report was criticised by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Eskom and several experts, who argued that "emissions do not amount to exposures" and that Mpumalanga was not necessarily the worst NO2 hotspot on earth.
Professor Rebecca Garland, principal researcher in the climate studies modelling and environmental health research group, was invited to make a presentation by the DEA. She told the committee there were flaws in the three-month data as it did not factor in seasonal variations.
“There is a NO2 hotspot – no one disagrees with that,” Garland told the Saturday Star, later. “You can see it from space over South Africa and it’s been there for a while. There is some evidence it is getting better. The satellite sees everything in the troposphere, but you can’t take a column measurement of that and say that is what people are inhaling on the ground.”
The troposphere is the lowest region of the atmosphere, extending from the earth’s surface up to 10km. “Eskom’s pollution is emitted way up high, and by the time it gets to the ground, mostly it’s diluted. There’s no evidence, too, to say there’s a health impact on eight million people in Joburg and Pretoria,” she said, adding that traffic hotspots accounted for high emissions, too.
Speaking as the DEA’s independent expert, Professor Harold Annegarn of North West University, who has done research for Eskom, said people were not exposed to dangerous levels of NO2 on the ground. The Greepeace Report, he said, was a "piece of propaganda" calculated to "create alarm.
But Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa, told the parliamentary committee: “People are feeling the impacts on the ground. We want the report to be criticised. Whether SA is number one or number 10, it’s clear there is a problem, and Greenpeace Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) are the only ones who have actually looked at health impacts.”
Eskom’s fleet, stated Steele earlier, must either comply with air quality legislation or be “decommissioned faster than expected”.
Albi Modise, the spokesperson for the DEA, said Greenpeace's findings were not new: several satellite observation studies showed long-term trends of NO2, identifying China, US, India, South Africa and the EU as NO2 hotspots.
“The department, however, has concerns with the Greenpeace report in that it has not been peer reviewed nor verified. The measurement data is only limited to three winter months, which is not sufficient to make a global comparison. The author also acknowledges therein that long-term trends may show different results.
“Additionally, satellite observation data does not represent ground level data. It is, therefore, misleading to link the tropospheric levels with human health impact.”
Modise said five DEA ambient air quality monitoring stations located in the Highveld Priority Area measured NO2 concentrations far below the ambient air quality standard.
The biggest concern in South Africa, he said, were levels of tiny particles known as particulate matter (PM) "more so because there is no threshold at which PM is not harmful to human health".
Greenpeace Africa said it wasn’t surprised the DEA had “taken the position of defending mega-polluters” on air pollution in Parliament.
Eskom termed Greenpeace Africa’s analysis an oversimplification of a complex problem. It had carried out extensive monitoring of ground-level pollution over the last 30 years, it said. “It is evident from this that there are pockets of ‘dirty air’ in Mpumalanga. The impact of Eskom power stations is evident mostly at distances of 5km-10km downwind of power stations.
“There are other low-level sources which contribute to the dirty air. These include domestic combustion from households burning coal, especially in winter, veld fires and traffic. Eskom acknowledges that all pollution sources need to be minimised so that health impacts can be reduced.
"All Eskom power stations currently comply with the NO2 MES and continue to develop improved technology of low NOx burners to reduce emissions. Eskom power station stacks (chimneys) are also intentionally built tall enough to allow all Eskom emissions to be emitted above the lower tropospheric boundary layer to ensure that the pollution is diluted by the time it reaches ground level.”
Robyn Hugo, programme head of pollution and climate change at the CER, said many people in South Africa were having their rights to an environment not harmful to health or well-being violated on a daily basis.
It was clear that the DEA and industry were "skirting around the issues” at the parliamentary hearing. “They were trying to show that the situation is ‘not as bad’ as we and Greenpeace have made it out to be, but not offering any solutions to address the issues or to ensure that air quality in the Highveld and other priority areas drastically improves.
This despite acknowledging that air pollution has been an issue for many years now.
“The MPs, and particularly the chairperson, Philemon Mapulane, confirmed at several points during the day that we are, in fact, dealing with a severe and ongoing air pollution crisis and the DEA is not doing enough," said Hugo.
What is NO2?
The burning of coal is associated with heavy releases of pollutants and airborne toxins such as fine particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), including nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide (SO²), lead, mercury and other heavy metals.
Nitrogen dioxide is a dangerous air pollutant, causing respiratory symptoms and lung damage on acute exposure increasing the risk of chronic diseases in long-term exposure. It reacts to form smog, PM and acid rain in high concentrations.
- Greenpeace Africa
Kendal is spewing fly-ash
As the helicopter circled Kendal power station, plumes of smoke from fly-ash, a coal by-product, billowed over the plant. “That’s not supposed to be there,” said Greenpeace Africa’s Nhlanhla Sibisi. “There’s a huge concentration of emissions because its ash-handling system is broken.”
This was where "thousands of tons of dangerous air pollution and ash were spewing" into the environment.
Eskom acknowledged that Kendal was operating with very high particulate emissions. "The power station is experiencing problems on their dust-handling plant and electrostatic precipitators. The power station has been working on repairing the plant for several months.
“Some progress was made from April to May but during the strike there was a need for high-load factors at Kendal to avoid load-shedding, this resulted in further damage to the dust-handling plant and electrostatic precipitators and higher emissions.”
Planned short-term outages had been run over the past three months to repair the plant and reduce particulate emissions.
“These activities, including planned longer outages as well as a heightened focus, will continue until the high emissions are resolved.”