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Eskom is the biggest government environmental criminal ... and after R2 million paid in fines, it’s not changing its ways.

This is according to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), which launched its annual National Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Report yesterday.

The report detailed a number of environmental crimes committed by individuals and industry, from rhino poaching to illegal waste disposal. Criminal investigations are now underway into, among others, BHP Billiton and Arcelor-Mittal.

In the public sector Eskom was the worst offender for:

l Storing waste water without water use licences at its Lethabo power station in the Free State;

l Operating a waste disposal site and storing coal without the required licences at its Matimba power station in Limpopo, as well as possibly causing soil, ground and surface water pollution because its waste disposal area was unlined;

l Exceeding emission limits at its Camden power station in Mpumalanga, while also discharging contaminated water into the environment.

The department sought prosecution because of the “significant non-compliance” at the Camden station, but the NPA decided against it – according to section 48 of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), the state is bound by the law, but can’t be held criminally liable for not actually following it.

The latest round of amendments to the act may change this, but until they are passed, the DEA is investigating how it can hold specific individuals liable for non-compliance instead.

Yesterday, the power utility said it “takes these issues very seriously” and had “a range of programmes in place across the organisation to ensure we comply with environmental legislation”.

It claimed the DEA had inspected the three stations in 2009, but that Eskom only received pre-compliance notices this year and has since addressed most of the issues raised. The department has been able to take action by fining Eskom, but this seems to have had little effect.

Under section 24F of NEMA, authorisation must be obtained for starting an activity that may impact the environment, such as construction. It involves conducting an environmental impact assessment and developing an environmental management plan. But section 24G allows for companies to pay a retrospective fine for beginning a listed activity without fulfilling these environmental requirements.

Eskom has paid over R2 million in these fines.

“The number of section 24G applications that have been submitted to the DEA by Eskom are evident of continued non-compliance and it would appear that the levying of these fines is not resulting in compliance or deterring the company from contravening the law,” read the report. But it’s not just Eskom. The last year saw a dramatic increase in these fines across the board, from R8.3 million in the 2010/11 financial year, to R17.6 million this year.

“It tells us that a lot of people are using that section of the law to buy themselves out of prosecution,” said Centre for Environmental Rights executive director Melissa Fourie.

She added that it was “completely unacceptable” that an organ of state was guilty of environmental offences.

“Eskom is a very large operation with a very large impact. Now, they’re in the process of building more power stations, but they are not even complying with legislation at their existing sites.”