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Broken Promises: The failure of South Africa’s priority areas for air pollution – time for action

2 October 2017 at 9:58 am

Today, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), in collaboration with groundWork and the Highveld Environmental Justice Network (HEJN), launched a new report entitled Broken Promises: the Failure of the Highveld Priority Area, exposing the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA)’s failing air pollution governance system – with a particular focus on the Mpumalanga Highveld. The report sets out urgent steps that should be taken by various authorities to improve the severe air pollution in several parts of South Africa, particularly in those parts which are supposed to be the priority areas aimed at reducing air pollution.

From 10h00 this morning, people who live and work in these priority areas will stage a peaceful protest at the DEA’s annual Air Quality Lekgotla in Woodmead. The Executive Summary to the report, in brochure-format, will be handed over to the DEA, and constitute the demands of the groups represented there.


In November 2007, the Minister of Environmental Affairs declared 31,000 km2 of the heavily-polluted Mpumalanga Highveld, then home to about 3.6 million people, a “priority area” in terms of the Air Quality Act. The Highveld Priority Area (HPA) was declared because, as the DEA said at the time, “people living and working in these areas do not enjoy air quality that is not harmful to their health and well-being”, as required by section 24 of the Constitution.

The CER, groundWork, and HEJN have been supportive, active and vocal participants in the various HPA processes for many years, with a particular focus on the Nkangala District Municipality (NDM) (home to towns like eMalahleni/Witbank, Middelburg, Delmas and Hendrina), which hosts significant industrial, electricity generation, mining, and manufacturing activity.

However, frustrated with the lack of progress and the ongoing and devastating health impacts related to the failure to improve air quality, the CER and its partners have conducted our own analysis [1] to determine whether the declaration of the HPA and the promulgation of the air quality management plan (AQMP) have improved air quality within the HPA to protect health; and if not, why not?

Our findings

Our conclusions are that, a decade after the HPA’s declaration, air quality in the HPA remains poor and out of compliance with health-based national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) (even though these are significantly weaker than the guidelines of the World Health Organisation). This is confirmed by expert analysis and the DEA’s own reports, including its draft review of the HPA AQMP published in February 2017, which found that emissions have not decreased significantly – if at all – over this period.

It is likely that the continued non-compliance with NAAQS is, in large part, due to the failure of key major industrial facilities to reduce their emissions either adequately, or at all. The National Air Quality Officer (NAQO)’s controversial decision in early 2015 to grant postponements from compliance with the minimum emission standards under the Air Quality Act to the biggest polluters in the HPA – Eskom and Sasol – has made it significantly less likely that air pollution in the HPA will be reduced.

The HPA ambient air quality monitoring network has deteriorated since its declaration. The 2012 HPA AQMP listed 23 monitoring sites with available data, while the DEA’s draft review of the AQMP listed just 9 monitoring stations with available data. Only 5 of the 9 stations published timeous monthly reports, available on the South African Air Quality Information System (SAAQIS) website.

Municipalities do not have enough money or dedicated, appropriately trained and skilled staff to implement the HPA AQMP and to enforce the Air Quality Act. There are only a few of the right people to do air quality management work. These officials have too many responsibilities, and are over-stretched to the extent that they are unable to devote adequate time to air quality management, compliance monitoring and enforcement.

In short, the HPA has dismally failed in its purpose: to improve air quality so that it at least meets the NAAQS. This means that the Constitutional rights of the people of the Mpumalanga Highveld to an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing are being violated every day. The significant air pollution means that Highveld residents are dying prematurely, and suffering from respiratory and cardiac illnesses that inhibit their prosperity and wellbeing.

What needs to change?

People living in the HPA, and organisations that have been active and vocal participants in the HPA structures, are angry and frustrated by government’s failure to protect health by reducing air pollution in priority areas. Pollution is not being adequately monitored or reduced, and polluters are not being held accountable.

The report sets out a number of key recommendations that authorities should implement to demonstrate that improving air quality in the HPA is, in fact, a priority for government. These measures are the minimum steps that are required in order for the state to meet its Constitutional obligations in terms of the environmental right and for all authorities to meet their obligations under the Air Quality Act. Although the focus of the report is the HPA, the majority of these recommendations apply equally to the other two priority areas – the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area, and the Waterberg-Bojanala Priority Area – neither of which comply with NAAQS.

  1. Given the continued non-compliance with NAAQS in the HPA, immediate steps must be taken to reduce emissions of pollutants:
    • All facilities in the HPA must be required to comply with at least the minimum emission standards. Therefore, having heard representations from the facilities and affected communities, the NAQO should use her powers under the Air Quality Act to consider withdrawing the postponements of compliance with minimum emission standards granted to Eskom and Sasol.
    • No further postponements of compliance with minimum emission standards or other air emission licence variations that permit exceedances of licence emission standards should be allowed.
    • Licensing authorities must suspend the issuing of all new emission licences in the HPA, until there is consistent compliance with all NAAQS. Approval and licensing of any expansion plans of existing industries must be contingent on a simultaneous substantial reduction in emissions.
    • When facilities reach their scheduled end-of-life (particularly certain Eskom coal-fired power stations), air emission licences must be withdrawn, and decommissioning and rehabilitation enforced.
    • The Dust Control Regulations must be amended to ensure adequate monitoring, measurement, and reduction of the significant dust emissions in the HPA, particularly from mining sources.
  1. In recognition of the crucial importance of air quality compliance in the HPA, a comprehensive compliance monitoring and enforcement programme must be put in place by DEA and local authorities to ensure that violations of emission licences are detected, and enforcement action taken against those who violate licence conditions. Such enforcement action must include suspension of licences for facilities until such time as emissions comply with licence conditions.
  1. The institutions charged with ensuring improved air quality in the HPA must be strengthened and appropriately resourced:
    • The DEA, the Mpumalanga and Gauteng provincial governments, and municipalities must demonstrate accountability for the proper management of priority areas, recognising that they have an ongoing responsibility for implementing and enforcing approved priority area AQMPs.
    • National government, provincial government, and local authorities in the HPA must allocate adequate financial and human resources to fulfill air quality management functions, including the right tools, training, and equipment to enable the reduction of emissions and improvement of the ambient air quality in NDM, eMalahleni and HPA as a whole.
    • To bolster resources for compliance monitoring and enforcement, the DEA must give serious consideration to requiring all existing facilities in priority areas to pay a substantial annual licensing fee, rather than simply a once-off application fee.
    • Municipalities must take urgent steps to ensure the appointment and training of suitable Air Quality Officers, Environmental Management Inspectors, the development of AQMPs, and the incorporation of those plans into Integrated Development Plans.
    • The Departments of Mineral Resources and Health – and other relevant departments – must participate in the HPA process to ensure that air pollution from mining is reduced, and human health impacts are addressed adequately.
  1. To build trust in the integrity of the management of the HPA, and enable meaningful and informed participation by all stakeholders, there must be far greater transparency about regulation, monitoring, and compliance in the HPA:
  • Air emission licences for all facilities in the HPA with significant polluting emissions must require real-time emissions monitoring, and that real-time emissions data be publicly available online and on request.
  • The air quality monitoring station network must urgently be improved upon and adequately managed and maintained, so as to produce verified, reliable HPA air quality data that are readily and publicly available.
  • The DEA and all licensing authorities within the HPA must make all emission licences and annual emission reports submitted to them publicly available, and all licence-holders must be required to make these documents available on their websites and on request.

Download the full report and annexure

Download the executive summary

Infographic showing the health impacts of emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations


Previous media releases on air quality include:

Air pollution from coal power stations causes disease and kills thousands of South Africans every year, says UK expert

Joint Media Release: Another five years of toxic pollution by Eskom

Environmental Rights Blog: Breathing space for polluters at the expense of public health

Media Release: Highveld communities take a stand against pollution from Eskom power stations

For media enquiries, please contact

Centre for Environmental Rights

Annette Gibbs, Email: [email protected], Mobile: 082 467 1295

Robyn Hugo, Email: [email protected], Mobile: 082 389 4357


Bobby Peek, Email: [email protected], Mobile: 082 464 138

Earthlife Africa

Makoma Lekalakala, Email: [email protected], Mobile: 082 682 9177

Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance

Samson Mokoena: [email protected], Mobile: 084 291 8510

Sebolelo Mafisa (Kido) [email protected], Mobile: 063 224 0847

Highveld Environmental Justice Network

Anton Doda, Email: [email protected], Mobile: 073 463 4149

Nomcebo Makhubelo, Email: [email protected], Mobile: 072 120 1626

For any other enquiries, please contact

Centre for Environmental Rights

Annette Gibbs, Email: [email protected], Mobile: 082 467 1295


[1] This analysis builds upon previous concerns raised in June 2014, when groundWork released “Slow Poison”, warning of the failure of air quality governance across South Africa (