State opposes court action forcing it to improve air quality of Highveld communities
Johannesburg - The government will oppose the landmark litigation brought to force it to implement its own plans to curb emissions and improve air quality in the Highveld communities straddling Mpumalanga and Gauteng.
Dubbed the “Deadly Air” case, it was brought to the North Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, by two environment advocacy groups in July last year.
The court’s acting Deputy Judge President Sulet Potterill has now informed the parties that the matter will be heard from May 17-19 next year.
In another key development in the case, the government has notified the court and the litigants that it will oppose the application brought against it.
“Be pleased to take notice that the First to Fifth Respondents intend to oppose this application,” the notice stated.
The government’s five respondents in the case were Minister of Environmental Affairs, the National Air Quality Officer, the president, Gauteng’s MEC for Agriculture and Rural Development and Mpumalanga’s MEC for Agriculture and Rural Development.
The government had until January 29 to file its affidavit, Judge President Potterill told the parties.
This affidavit will detail reasons of the five government respondents for opposing the application.
Environment advocacy organisations groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Movement took the matter to court after years of engaging the government on the implementation of the Highveld Priority Area Air Quality Management Plan.
It was promulgated in 2007 by the then minister of environmental affairs and tourism. It declared a 30 000km² area cutting across Gauteng and Mpumalanga as a “priority area”.
The first goal of the plan was that the government would be geared up “to efficiently and effectively” maintain, monitor and enforce compliance with ambient air quality standards.
Second, industrial emissions were to be reduced to achieve compliance with ambient air quality standards by this year.
And third, the plan aimed to bring air quality in all low-income communities to full compliance with ambient air quality standards.
Highveld was home to 12 Eskom coal-fired power stations, Sasol’s synfuels chemical facility and the NatRef refinery.
The bold Highveld plan, which would have forced Eskom, Sasol and NatRef to account for pollution, was left to gather dust, the applicants said.
“The ambient air in the Highveld is heavily polluted,” the director of the groundWork Trust, Sven Peek, said in an affidavit.
“Major towns such as eMalahleni, Middelburg, Secunda, Standerton, Edenvale, Boksburg and Benoni, in particular, are well known for their poor air quality.”
He said the poor air quality had significant and direct impact on human health and well-being, “causing premature deaths and chronic respiratory and other illnesses”.
“Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts caused by air pollution,” said Peek.
Vukani Environmental Movement and groundWork sought an order declaring the poor air quality in the Highveld a violation of rights to a safe environment.
The order should also compel the government to implement the Highveld plan.
“The applicants contend that the (Environment) Minister is obliged to establish regulations to implement and enforce the Highveld Plan,” Peek said.