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Eskom pollution kills almost 2000 people a year - report

Mar 12 2019 14:18
Melanie Gosling, Fin24

Eskom estimates that emissions from its coal-fired power stations kill 534 people a year – but an independent review of Eskom’s data estimates that the number of people who die is at least 1850 a year.

Greenpeace says Eskom has misled the public and the government by underestimating the health costs of its 13 coal power stations.

It believes that Eskom’s down-playing of the health costs is an attempt by the utility to get a postponement from government in having to comply with air pollution legislation. Complying with the legislation would require Eskom to “retrofit” its power stations by installing new emission control equipment on its entire coal fleet, an expensive outlay on an ageing fleet. 

Eskom maintains that a cost-benefit analysis has shown that the high cost of installing equipment to cut harmful emissions far outweighs the benefits to human health.

This was the gist of Eskom’s application to the Department of Environment Affairs when it applied for a postponement in having to meet the emission standards. But the independent experts commissioned by Greenpeace to review Eskom’s data in its application, say Eskom’s analysis is flawed, and that the benefits of fitting the emissions-control equipment are at least five times greater than Eskom had calculated. 

Melita Steele, climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace, said on Monday, “Even one death a year is bad enough, but to under-estimate the number of deaths by so much, and to under-estimate the benefits of complying by so much, I think Eskom has misled the public and the government.” 

When the Department of Environment Affairs introduced stricter air pollution legislation, it gave industry some time to prepare. In 2010 it announced that emissions would have to meet certain standards by 2015, followed by stricter standards by 2020. 

These minimum emission standards are better than South Africa used to have under the 1965 legislation, but are still lower than many other countries, including those of China and India.

Sasol and Eskom applied for exemptions. 

Robyn Hugo of the Centre for Environmental Rights said the then Environment Affairs minister Edna Molewa had said no one could be exempt from the law, but could apply for postponements – which Eskom and Sasol did.

This had led to “rolling postponements”. 

“We objected to that, as postponements that go on and on is in effect an exemption. Sasol and Eskom are the two biggest producers of greenhouse gases and air pollution in the whole of Africa,” Hugo said. 

In the latest iteration of the air quality legislation, only one postponement is allowed. The emissions standards that ought to kick in by 2020 can be postponed to 2025. But if an entity can show that its polluting plant will be decommissioned by 2030, it can apply for a once-off suspension of the legal requirements to install equipment to clean up emissions.

“Which is in effect an exemption,” Hugo said. The deadline for applications was March this year. Greenpeace believed Eskom’s application to government was flawed, and commissioned independent experts in the field, Michael Holland from the UK and Joseph Spandaro from France, to review Eskom’s report. 

Steele said the review was important because of the “air pollution crisis” in Mpumalanga, and the thousands of premature deaths from emissions that would result if Eskom were allowed not to comply with the air pollution legislation. 

The reviewers found flaws with Eskom’s health impact assessment and with its cost benefit analysis. They calculated that Eskom had underestimated the likely number of deaths its power station emissions would cause – 534 instead of 1850 - and had under-estimated the benefits of installing emission control equipment.  

They found the benefits to society, by reducing the air pollution health risk, were in fact five times greater than Eskom has said in its application. Steele said Greenpeace would write to the Department of Environment Affairs to say Eskom’s cost-benefit report was so fatally flawed, that government should not use it as a basis for decision-making. 

Greenpeace and the Centre for Environmental Rights believe that Eskom must either comply with the emission control legislation, or if it is not able to, it must accelerate the decommissioning of its coal-fired power plants. 

A 2016 World Bank report estimates that about 20 000 South Africans die from air pollution related causes a year. South Africa’s emissions standards allow six times more particulate matter than those of the UK or China.

Particulate matter is made up of tiny particles of a variety of substances including acids, organic chemicals, metals, soil and dust. It is found in smoke, along roadways and is emitted by some industries, such as coal power stations, as smoke and soot. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the size of the particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Those that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller are inhaled into the lungs and can cause serious health problems for the heart and lungs. Eskom was asked to comment but had not replied at the time of publication.

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