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Big polluter Eskom regularly exceeds air pollution limits – damning new report

25 February 2019 at 9:00 am

A new international expert report commissioned by the Life After Coal campaign shows that pollution from nearly all of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants persistently and significantly violates the air pollution limits in its licences. This is not only illegal, but also means that Eskom is continuously endangering the health and violating the human rights of millions of people affected by this pollution.

The international expert report was based on Eskom’s own monthly reports of the emissions from its coal power plants, which Eskom submitted to authorities.

A new report by U.S. coal plant expert Dr Ranajit Sahu has found that, over a 21 month period until December 2017, Eskom’s coal power plants exceeded its already-weak licence conditions close to 3200 times.

The exceedances relate to all three regulated pollutants for coal plants, namely sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and particulate matter (PM) – including soot and ash.

The offending plants with the most frequent licence exceedances were Lethabo, Matla, Matimba, and Kriel.

The plants with the highest PM exceedances were Grootvlei (at times as much as 15 times the limit), Kriel (at times as much as 6 times the limit), and Duvha and Lethabo (at times as much as 5 times the limit).

Last month, Eskom applied, for the fourth time, for more time to comply with South Africa’s minimum emission standards (MES) – and in some cases asked for permission not to comply at all for the remaining lives of certain of its oldest and dirtiest power stations. Based on past reprieves given to Eskom by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Eskom already operates with many licence conditions that are weaker than the MES.

SA’s MES – set following a multi-year, multi-stakeholder process in which Eskom was a vocal and active participant – have been law since 31 March 2010. In other words, Eskom was well aware, almost 9 years ago, that it would have to limit its pollution in order to comply with the MES. The MES are also multiple times weaker even than other developing countries like China, India, and Indonesia. For example, the South African 2015 SO2 standard is more than 17 times weaker than China’s.

The MES with which Eskom is failing to comply are the so-called existing plant or 2015 standards, which will become significantly stricter from 1 April 2020.

The Life After Coal campaign argues that, if Eskom’s coal plants cannot comply with South Africa’s already-weak MES, they should be decommissioned urgently, and an inclusive, transparent, and just transition plan put in place to support workers and their families.

Pollution from Eskom’s coal power stations has been estimated to cause the premature deaths of more than 2200 people every year, and to result in thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually. This costs the country more than R33 billion annually, through hospital admissions and lost working days.

“From the data, it appears that Eskom treats the limits in its air quality permits as optional targets. Whatever pollution control they have is not working, or is not being made to work,” says Dr Sahu.

In July 2017, Life After Coal campaign attorneys, the Centre for Environmental Rights, had to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to access monthly emission reports from Eskom. The bulk of these reports were only received in January 2018 after Eskom’s refusal to disclose the reports under PAIA, despite multiple extensions and an appeal, was raised with the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs.

The Life After Coal campaign reported the findings of this report to the DEA and the provincial and municipal licensing authorities in October 2018. That followed many years of complaint to these authorities by campaign partners and communities affected by the pollution, including submission of a detailed report called Broken Promises in October 2017.  The campaign has also repeatedly reported the situation to the Portfolio Committees on Environmental Affairs and Health.

“Violations of air quality permits are criminal offences under South Africa’s Air Quality Act. On conviction, Eskom, including its directors, could be liable for a R5 million fine and/or 5 years’ imprisonment, per offence. Furthermore, the National Environmental Management Act requires Eskom to take reasonable measures to prevent pollution and to minimise and contain its atmospheric emissions. Failure to fulfil this duty of care is also an offence, and Eskom, including its directors, could be liable for a R10 million fine and/or 10 years’ imprisonment,” explains CER Pollution & Climate Change Head, Robyn Hugo.

Despite this, authorities have failed to take enforcement action against Eskom.

Dr Sahu points out: “These excessive emissions unarguably contribute towards acute and chronic health impacts.” Dr Sahu says that, in effect, DEA and the licensing authorities are ignoring the health impacts of high levels of pollution.

“I am surprised that the regulators with the responsibility for responding to exceedances and for ensuring that they don’t recur, are not only not taking any action, but appear not even to be reviewing the emission reports submitted by Eskom.” Dr Sahu says that, in some instances, Eskom provided exact duplicate reports for the same station for multiple months.

“Whatever happens with the future of Eskom, this kind of criminal conduct by Eskom cannot be allowed to continue at the expense of the health of people living in Mpumalanga, Gauteng, the Free State, and Limpopo, says Thomas Mnguni, community campaigner for Life After Coal partner and environmental justice organisation groundWork. The crisis at Eskom provides an opportunity for a new energy system that generates cheap electricity in a way that doesn’t poison our people.”

Despite the damning evidence to the contrary, Eskom has repeatedly stated that its power stations comply with their licences. In Eskom’s 22 February 2019 response to Dr Sahu’s report, Eskom again states inter alia that “Eskom stations generally comply with the conditions of their [atmospheric emission licence]s in respect of emission levels”.


For queries, contact Robyn Hugo on [email protected] or 082 389 4357 or Tim Lloyd on [email protected] or 083 275 2010. Dr Ranajit Sahu is also available for media queries.


The Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle Campaign comprises the groundWork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights.