"Waiting to die" in Kriel, the world's second worst sulphur dioxide hotspot

Nikiwe Tshabangu suffers from asthma, as do many other residents of Kriel in Mpumalanga. The town is the second-worst sulphur dioxide emission hot spot in the world. Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA).

Nikiwe Tshabangu suffers from asthma, as do many other residents of Kriel in Mpumalanga. The town is the second-worst sulphur dioxide emission hot spot in the world. Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA).

Published Aug 24, 2019


When Nikiwe Tshabangu moved from KwaZulu-Natal to Kriel in Mpumalanga in 1991, she never imagined living in the tiny town would make her sick.

Soon after her husband started working on a local coal mine supplying Eskom's Matla coal-fired power station, the mother-of-four was diagnosed with asthma.

Her daughter developed the chronic respiratory disease, too. "I know it's this place that has made us sick," says the 52-year-old resolutely, gesturing to Eskom's Kriel and Matla coal-fired power stations that tower over the redbrick town, about 100km from Joburg, in the distance.

A yellow-brown haze of smog fills the skyline. "The air is too dirty from all these power stations and coal mines. Last week, we went to a funeral of someone in our community who died from asthma. His chest closed and he couldn't breathe," she says.

The town, which is located around 100km from Joburg, has been described as the epicentre of South Africa's power production, with Mpumalanga's rich coal seam running right through it. Eight of Eskom's coal-fired power stations are situated within a 100km radius of Kriel while the highly polluted towns of eMalahleni and Secunda are situated nearby. 

Kriel's air is dangerous to breathe. New analysis of NASA satellite data by Greenpeace India has found how the Kriel area, with its high concentration of coal-fired power plants, ranks as the second largest sulphur dioxide (SO2) hotspot in the world.

SO2 is a dangerous, highly toxic pollutant, which can cause lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke and raise the risk of death from diabetes. Emissions of SO2 contribute to the secondary formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the air pollutant with the largest public health impact.

"Many people here know it's the air that's making them sick but they don't know what's in the air," explains Tshabangu. "If Eskom and the mines cared, they would do something to protect our health, but they don't."

Across the road from Thubelihle, a barren township on the outskirts of Kriel where she lives, black dust billows from a large coal mine. Tshabangu stands in the yard of her RDP home, showing the medicine she has to take every day: oral prednisone, a corticosteroid, and her steroid inhaler, which she gets from the local clinic.

"This asthma makes my life unbearable. I can't work because I can't breathe and even doing work around the house is hard for me. Sometimes my medicine doesn't work and I have to go to the clinic or to hospital to be put on a drip ... I'm waiting to die."

Her asthmatic neighbour, 72-year-old Thoko Telekwa, tells how she frequently ends up in hospital, requiring oxygen. "There's no fresh air here at all," says the pensioner, who was diagnosed with asthma in 2008. "At night, it's worse. I have to put more pillows up because I can't breathe and the air smells.

"Last year, there was a time I phoned my children to tell them I was dying because I couldn't breathe."

Long-term use of corticosteroids can cause osteoporosis, weaken immunity, raise blood pressure and cause cataracts, among other things. Telekwa says she has high blood pressure and shows the cataracts that cloud her vision.

"We've been told to leave the area for our health, but where must we go?" she shrugs her thin shoulders. "No one has money to move somewhere else. We must be compensated for our health by the government because we are suffering."

At the local Thubelihle clinic, a nurse, who does not want to be identified, scribbles prescriptions in her ledger. Outside her office, a bench is filled with waiting patients. "There are so many people in Kriel who have asthma," she says, simply. "Too many."

Mpumalanga's Highveld, a declared air priority area, is home to 12 Eskom coal-fired power stations, making it the largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world from power generation, finds Greenpeace India's latest study. And as the fleet is located only 100km to 200km from SA's largest populated area, the Gauteng city-region, this "poses a massive health concern".

The NASA data shows how SA is ranked seventh overall in terms of total SO2 emissions across the globe. Greenpeace Africa says Eskom's coal-fired power plants are allowed to emit more than 20 times as much SO2 as Chinese and European coal-fired plants.

Sasol, one of the largest industrial users of coal in the world, "hasn't been required to mitigate its SO2 emissions in any meaningful way either", it says. The firm did not respond to the Saturday Star.

Greenpeace Africa says its new study corroborates existing data, which indicates that Mpumalanga is a "deadly global air pollution hotspot", both in terms of nitrogen dioxide (NOX) and SO2 emissions.

The dirty air on Mpumalanga's Highveld is the subject of a landmark lawsuit, brought by groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, against the government earlier this year. Represented by the Centre for the Environmental Rights (CER), the litigation is to force authorities to clean up Mpumalanga's "deadly air".

Human exposure to toxic chemical compounds emitted by Eskom's coal plants, such as SO2, heavy metals like mercury, and fine particulate matter, results in chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer, and contributes to strokes, heart attacks, birth defects, and premature death, says the CER.

In its response to the Greenpeace India analysis, Eskom says the NASA report does not measure ground level concentrations "so are not directly related to health impacts.

"However due to the number, size and location of South Africa’s coal fired power stations it's possible that emissions would result in the 'hotspot' referred to in the report," says spokesperson Dikatso Mothae.

Eskom, she says, remains committed to continually reducing emissions and has an emission reduction plan, which is currently in execution.  "This plan prioritises high emitting stations and is executed taking into consideration the remaining life of plant, the impact on health and environment and the cost."

As older power stations are decommissioned, "the total emissions from Eskom will reduce significantly and the air quality in Mpumulanga will improve. Coal-fired power stations continue to contribute to the economy of South Africa in many ways. 

"The transition to cleaner technologies such as renewables and cleaner coal fired power stations is gaining momentum, as identified in the latest draft Integrated Resource Plan."

But Greenpeace Africa says this transition in South Africa is "stunted" by a very high reliance on coal, weak emission standards and a lack of enforcement and compliance.

Albi Modise, the spokesperson for the department of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry says it is "concerned about the air quality challenges in the region referred to in the Greenpeace study".

The department's newly-elected Minister Barbara Creecy, he says, "had already started to raise concerns about the issue of air quality and that we need to work with various structures to ensure that the matter is addressed".

A study by Dr Andy Gray, an air and health risk modelling expert, using 2016 emission data found that PM2.5 pollution from 14 industrial facilities - Eskom's 12 power stations, Sasol's Synfuels chemical facility and the Natref refinery caused as many as 650 early deaths in 2016.

The three worst offenders were the Lethabo (57-122 early deaths), Kendal (46-99 early deaths) and Kriel power stations (34-76 early deaths). Gray's study was commissioned by the CER and is cited in its lawsuit.

"If the 14 facilities were required to comply with the 2020 Minimum Emission Standards, this would reduce early deaths by 60%, preventing between 182 and 388 early deaths in and around the Highveld Priority Area every year. In this regard, I point out that all of Eskom's facilities (except Kusile) and all of Sasol's coal boilers have postponed compliance with 2020 MES until April 2025, and that, of these facilities, very few, if any ever intend to comply with the current SO2 2020 MES," he writes, in the court papers.

"Based on global experience and WHO conclusions concerning the health benefits of reducing ambient PM2.5, if the modelled sources could be brought into compliance with the 2020 Minimum Emission Standards, in particular reducing SO2 to reduce the formation of secondary PM2.5, there would be major gains in health and a decrease in sickness and death in the Highveld Priority Area and the nearby cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria," concurs Professor Peter Orris, the head of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois, in the court papers.

Research released earlier this year by the Life After Coal campaign showed how, over a 21-month period until December 2017, Eskom’s plants, including Kriel, Lethabo, Matla and Matimbal, exceeded its "already-weak licence conditions" close to 3200 times for all three regulated pollutants for coal plants: SO2, oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter.

National air quality officer, Dr Thuli Khumalo, is now considering whether to weaken the country’s already "lax" SO2 limits further, making these around 10 times weaker than the equivalent standard in India and 28 times weaker than the equivalent standard in China.

Greenpeace's research has shown how the doubling of air pollution standards for SO2 will cause an estimated 3300 premature deaths. This is as a result of increased risk of lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke, and increased risk of death from diabetes. Around 1 000 of these premature deaths are estimated in Gauteng.

Back in Kriel, Henriette Botha*, tells how her two young children constantly suffer from sinus problems.  "They never really get better and I think it's because of all this pollution. Yes, this (Greenpeace) report has come out about Kriel, but nothing will change," she shrugs, cynically.

Thandeka Nxele*, who is unemployed, worries about her 17-year-old son, who was diagnosed with asthma when he was seven. "Last year, he nearly died from asthma. We had to rush to all our neighbours to find him (cortisone) pills until we could get him to the hospital."

"He was coughing so much, his nose was bleeding and he told us that he was scared he was going to die ... He is always coughing. I know it's because of the place we live in. If I had money, I would leave Kriel for the sake of my child."

*Not their real names

Thoko Telekwa has to take cortisone tablets and use her asthma pump every day.

What is SO2?

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is created when burning materials that contain sulphur, found in all types of coal and oil irritates the nose, throat and airways to cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling around the chest. It’s a highly toxic pollutant, which can cause lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke and raise the risk of death from diabetes.

It contributes to the secondary formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the air pollutant with the largest public health impact because it’s a cocktail of all different kinds of pollution ranging from heavy metals to secondary gaseous pollutants such as sulphates and nitrates.

“These pollutants are so small that they can penetrate deeper into our organs and calls harming every organ in our body, causing everything from dementia and fertility problems to reduced intelligence and heart and lung disease,” says Greenpeace.  

Difficult to pinpoint source of Highveld’s sulphur dioxide

Mogesh Naidoo, lead air quality modeller at the CSIR, says the sulphur dioxide (SO2 ) resolution from the Nasa satellite data used by Greenpeace India is a reflection of a mixed atmosphere. 

“Therefore, it’s very difficult to pinpoint sources. For example, Sasol Secunda is 30km south of Kriel and Matla Power Stations. Their (Greenpeace) interpolation of satellite data does not help with the accuracy either." 

"They do concede this point, but make a large assumption,” he says, referring to Greenpeace India’s report. In it, researchers Sunil Dahiya and Lauri Myllyvirta state how, “in many cases, the total emissions for a region cannot be attributed to an exact source because emissions from large sources may obscure those of other smaller nearby contributors.

Therefore, in cases where multiple industries are present in the cluster, we take the largest sources as representing all other sources”. What this does, says Naidoo, is attribute everything in that regional atmosphere to a single source but it’s difficult to allocate layer aggregated SO2 to a single source. “Nasa’s SO2 emissions catalogue goes a long way to pinpointing sources, but for the Highveld it’s very difficult. The satellite products are also a result of modelling and algorithms themselves and it’s very difficult to get surface concentrations.

“Theoretically, much of the emissions from tall industrial stacks go further up into the atmosphere away from the ground. The satellite will pick up everything. “The issue is that there are times when the plume can reach the ground due to turbulence. When it does, and it’s close to the source, the concentrations can be very high.

So there are definitely impacts from Eskom and other industry; although the characterisation using satellites cannot alone be used to draw conclusive arguments.

It is “strange”, he says, that Greenpeace has “gone through all the trouble” to estimate that Eskom and Sasol are major SO2 emitters on the Highveld. 

“Eskom emissions are public knowledge and they are indeed (as a collective) the highest SO2 emitters. Greenpeace need to go one step further and relate this to what’s seen on the ground. 

Our stance on this remains: Greenpeace research has aspects of subjectivity in it, and if one looks purely at technicalities, some issues.

“However, the message that the Highveld is very polluted, and that Sasol and Eskom do contribute to that pollution, is true."

"The clustering of these industries does not help. For example, Matimba and Medupi are much larger power stations but the hotspot over Waterberg isn’t as prominent. “Other sources, such as household coal burning and mining, also contribute. We are also beginning to see that windblown dust, particularly in rural township settings, are an important source.” 

The Saturday Star 

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