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Despite severe health impacts, Eskom again seeks to delay compliance with air pollution standards

15 March 2018 at 9:00 am

Economic loss as a result of pollution from Eskom's Tutuka power station through premature deaths, hospital admissions, and lost working days is estimated to be R2.4 billion per year. Picture: James Oatway for CER
Economic loss as a result of pollution from Eskom's Tutuka power station through premature deaths, hospital admissions, and lost working days is estimated to be R2.4 billion per year. Picture: James Oatway for CER

Eskom has again applied to postpone compliance with the minimum emission standards for air pollution, this time for its Tutuka power station near Standerton. This area falls within the already heavily polluted Highveld Priority Area in Mpumalanga.

The minimum emission standards (MES) regulate the maximum amount of air pollution released by industries, to limit harmful impacts on human health, wellbeing, and the environment. They were first published in 2010 following a 5 year multi-stakeholder process, and require existing industries (including all of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations) to comply with a set of MES by 1 April 2015, and a stricter set by 1 April 2020.

In early 2015, despite vehement objections from civil society and community organisations, Eskom was granted widespread postponements of deadlines to meet the MES. Multiple additional postponement applications for the majority of their power stations are expected later this year.

For 13 stations, Eskom has said that it never intends to meet the sulphur dioxide standard. It will instead apply for what it calls “rolling postponements” – ongoing, consecutive 5 year postponements until its stations are decommissioned.

In respect of Tutuka’s particulate matter emissions, it already has extremely lax standards in its licence conditions – three-and-a-half times weaker than the 2015 MES. According to the current postponement application, Eskom wants to retain this extremely lax standard for Tutuka until 2024; which will mean that, from 2020, its emission standard will be 7 times that of the 2020 MES.

The Highveld Environmental Justice Network (HEJN), together with the Life after Coal campaign – consisting of environmental justice organisations Earthlife Africa Johannesburg (ELA), groundWork, and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) – vigorously object to these continuous postponements of compliance, especially given the deadly health impacts of Eskom’s emissions, and the fact that all of its operations are located in priority areas designated in terms of the Air Quality Act, where air pollution already exceeds South Africa’s lax health-based air quality standards. These organisations point out that rolling postponements are illegal, and have long been advocating that Eskom should have an expedited plan to decommission those old polluting stations that cannot meet the MES.

CER attorney Michelle Koyama explains: “Eskom had a very long lead time to take the necessary steps to ensure compliance with the MES, and has already obtained more time to do so. Despite this, the fact remains that Eskom does not even meet the requirements to seek a postponement of the MES – as air quality standards in the priority areas are exceeded on an ongoing basis – and although South Africa’s MES are considerably weaker than other developing countries [2], it now asks our National Air Quality Officer to grant it further postponements.”

The consequence of this ongoing non-compliance is devastating for the people living in the Highveld. Numerous health studies conducted world-wide (including Eskom’s own studies) confirm that air pollution has severe impacts on human health. The Department of Environmental Affairs’ 2017 State of the Air report states that “many South Africans may be breathing air that is harmful to their health and well-being especially in the priority areas”, and “a 9 year trend of pollutants indicate that the air quality has not improved”.

In 2017, expert Dr Mike Holland (who has conducted similar studies for the European Union, World Bank, amongst others) completed a health impacts study which found that Eskom emissions result in more than 2,200 equivalent attributable deaths every year, and cause thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually. These impacts are calculated to cost South Africa more than R30 billion annually, through premature deaths, hospital admissions, and lost working days.

Air pollution from Tutuka power station is estimated to be responsible annually for 192 equivalent attributable deaths, over 1000 cases of bronchitis in children and adults, 204 hospital admissions, 340 963 restricted activity days, and 85 533 lost working days. Economic loss as a result of pollution from Tutuka power station through premature deaths, hospital admissions, and lost working days is estimated to be R2.4 billion per year.

The lack of improvement of the air quality in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA) in over a decade, and the negative health impacts on communities as a result of air pollution in HPA, are outlined in detail in the October 2017 report Broken Promises by CER, groundWork, and HEJN, and the 2014 groundWork report Slow Poison. The recommendations made in the Broken Promises report include that no more MES postponements should be granted in priority areas until the air quality complies with ambient air quality standards. To date, the DEA has failed to respond to this report, and civil society and community organisations are now considering asking the courts to intervene.

Thomas Mnguni, groundWork’s community campaigner, says: “Allowing Eskom to exceed the MES is at the expense of the health of the South African people and the economy. It is unacceptable. Unless urgent steps are taken to follow the recommendations in Broken Promises, we will ask the court to order the government to protect our Constitutional rights. In 2013, when it first asked to be exempt from the MES, we warned the government that Eskom would seek rolling postponements of compliance – and this is exactly what it is now doing.”

[1] Section 18 of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, 2004, provides for the designation of priority areas when the Minister or MEC reasonably believes that ambient air quality standards are being, or may be, exceeded in the area, or any other situation exists which is causing, or may cause, a significant negative impact on air quality in the area. 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 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.

[2] South African MES are far weaker than other developing countries such as India, China, and Indonesia – see comparison of MES at


For media comment and interviews, please contact:

  • Thomas Mnguni, groundWork community campaigner, on [email protected] or 072 449 5655
  • Anton Doda, Highveld Environmental Justice Network on [email protected] or 073 463 4149
  • Michelle Koyama, attorney in the Centre for Environmental Rights’ Pollution & Climate Change programme, on [email protected] or 084 091 3211

For any other media queries, please contact Annette Gibbs on [email protected] or 082 467 1295.