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In pictures: What coal is doing to the Mpumalanga Highveld

May 26, 2015 at 12:40 pm

This is a slideshow of photographs taken from the air on two flights over the Mpumalanga Highveld undertaken by CER attorneys in June 2014 and May 2015. If you’re reading this on a mobile device and cannot see the images, take the time to go to our website and watch this slideshow.

Dust rises from dumped "overburden" at a coal mine near Arnot
Dust rises from dumped "overburden" at a coal mine near Arnot
Smoking stacks of an Eskom power station. In the background is a human settlement, in close proximity to the power station and its air pollution. Photo: Melissa Fourie/CER
Smoking stacks of an Eskom power station. In the background is a human settlement, in close proximity to the power station and its air pollution. Photo: Melissa Fourie/CER
Air pollution obscures the view behind this vast open-cast coal mining operation.
Air pollution obscures the view behind this vast open-cast coal mining operation.
Coal strip-mining in Mpumalanga.
Coal strip-mining in Mpumalanga.
Huge overburden mounds at a coal mine near Arnot. Mining companies are required as a condition of their mining rights to carry out "concurrent rehabilitation", i.e. to rehabilitate old pits while digging new ones, but it appears that in many places on the Highveld this is not taking place.
Huge overburden mounds at a coal mine near Arnot. Mining companies are required as a condition of their mining rights to carry out "concurrent rehabilitation", i.e. to rehabilitate old pits while digging new ones, but it appears that in many places on the Highveld this is not taking place.
A giant ash dam at an Eskom power station. "Fly ash" is the ash produced by the burning of powdered coal. Eskom stores this waste product in enormous "dams" next to power stations.
A giant ash dam at an Eskom power station. "Fly ash" is the ash produced by the burning of powdered coal. Eskom stores this waste product in enormous "dams" next to power stations.
Two Eskom power stations visible through the smog.
Two Eskom power stations visible through the smog.
A thick layer of smog is the norm over the Highveld.
A thick layer of smog is the norm over the Highveld.
Energy production through opencast coal mining and coal-fired power stations has transformed the landscape on the Mpumalanga Highveld, and filled the atmosphere with smog. Each power station emits a toxic combination of SO2, NOx, particulate matter, and other pollutants. Photo: Melissa Fourie/CER
Energy production through opencast coal mining and coal-fired power stations has transformed the landscape on the Mpumalanga Highveld, and filled the atmosphere with smog. Each power station emits a toxic combination of SO2, NOx, particulate matter, and other pollutants. Photo: Melissa Fourie/CER
Energy production through opencast coal mining and coal-fired power stations has transformed the landscape on the Mpumalanga Highveld, and filled the atmosphere with smog. Each power station emits a toxic combination of SO2, NOx, particulate matter, and other pollutants. Photo: Melissa Fourie/CER
Energy production through opencast coal mining and coal-fired power stations has transformed the landscape on the Mpumalanga Highveld, and filled the atmosphere with smog. Each power station emits a toxic combination of SO2, NOx, particulate matter, and other pollutants. Photo: Melissa Fourie/CER
Pollution hangs over the horizon.
Pollution hangs over the horizon.
The proximity of coal mining to fresh water resources is evident from the air. Acid mine drainage, which is prevalent in Mpumalanga, results in elevated acidity and toxicity levels in fresh water sources.
The proximity of coal mining to fresh water resources is evident from the air. Acid mine drainage, which is prevalent in Mpumalanga, results in elevated acidity and toxicity levels in fresh water sources.
The appalling air quality on the Highveld is caused by a combination of toxic emissions from Eskom power stations and big industry like Sasol, coal dust, dust from the thousands of coal trucks that constantly traverse gravel roads, and domestic coal-burning.
The appalling air quality on the Highveld is caused by a combination of toxic emissions from Eskom power stations and big industry like Sasol, coal dust, dust from the thousands of coal trucks that constantly traverse gravel roads, and domestic coal-burning.
Eskom's power stations emit a combination of SO2, NOx, particulate matter, mercury and other toxic pollutants.
Eskom's power stations emit a combination of SO2, NOx, particulate matter, mercury and other toxic pollutants.
Giant ash dam next to Eskom power station. The horizon is completely obscured by smog.
Giant ash dam next to Eskom power station. The horizon is completely obscured by smog.
Most of the roads used by coal trucks are gravel. The dust kicked up by these trucks, combined with the coal dust from their loads, smothers vegetation on the haul routes.
Most of the roads used by coal trucks are gravel. The dust kicked up by these trucks, combined with the coal dust from their loads, smothers vegetation on the haul routes.
Across vast tracts of Mpumalanga, coal mining has subsumed once-fertile agricultural land, and it continues to encroach relentlessly on farms across the province.
Across vast tracts of Mpumalanga, coal mining has subsumed once-fertile agricultural land, and it continues to encroach relentlessly on farms across the province.
Another power station is just visible on the horizon.
Another power station is just visible on the horizon.
Dragline excavators move hundreds of tons of earth in a single cycle.
Dragline excavators move hundreds of tons of earth in a single cycle.
The landscape is transformed by opencast coal mining.
The landscape is transformed by opencast coal mining.
Piles of overburden lie alongside scarred and sterile "rehabilitated" land.
Piles of overburden lie alongside scarred and sterile "rehabilitated" land.
An unrehabilitated coal pit cuts through the landscape.
An unrehabilitated coal pit cuts through the landscape.
Coal trucks collecting their loads on the Mpumalanga Highveld, where most of South Africa’s coal is produced. Photo: Tracey Davies/CER
Coal trucks collecting their loads on the Mpumalanga Highveld, where most of South Africa’s coal is produced. Photo: Tracey Davies/CER
Water seeps into coal pits and becomes toxic.
Water seeps into coal pits and becomes toxic.
The unrehabilitated discards of open-cast coal mining.
The unrehabilitated discards of open-cast coal mining.
Long-abandoned overburden dumps.
Long-abandoned overburden dumps.
Open-cast coal mining cuts a vast swathe through the grasslands.
Open-cast coal mining cuts a vast swathe through the grasslands.
Coal-feed to an Eskom power station.
Coal-feed to an Eskom power station.
An Eskom power station and its surrounds.
An Eskom power station and its surrounds.
People who work at and live near Eskom's power stations are exposed to high concentrations of particulate emissions.
People who work at and live near Eskom's power stations are exposed to high concentrations of particulate emissions.
Dragline excavation.
Dragline excavation.
The extraordinary proximity of Eskom's 12 Highveld power stations is striking from the air.
The extraordinary proximity of Eskom's 12 Highveld power stations is striking from the air.
This image, and the next, show clearly how strip-mining devastates huge areas of land.
This image, and the next, show clearly how strip-mining devastates huge areas of land.
In 2012, the Bureau for Food & Agricultural Policy estimated that up to 26% of South Africa's high potential arable soils will be transformed at the current rate of coal mining and prospecting in Mpumalanga, rendering them unusable for food production.
In 2012, the Bureau for Food & Agricultural Policy estimated that up to 26% of South Africa's high potential arable soils will be transformed at the current rate of coal mining and prospecting in Mpumalanga, rendering them unusable for food production.
Coal pit in Mpumalanga.
Coal pit in Mpumalanga.
Water seeping into an open coal pit.
Water seeping into an open coal pit.
Dragline excavation creates huge piles of overburden.
Dragline excavation creates huge piles of overburden.
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In June 2014, CER Attorney Tracey Davies was taken on an eye-opening flight over the Mpumalanga Highveld by former SAA pilot Karl Jensen, now a volunteer pilot for the non-profit Bateleurs: Flying for the Environment in Africa. In response, Tracey wrote an article – Mpumalanga is in an environmental crisis – why is nobody listening?­ that received widespread media attention for expressing the concerns of many of the people who live and work on the Highveld.

That article was still as relevant as ever when two weeks ago, CER Executive Director Melissa Fourie took the same flight with the Bateleurs: taking off east of Johannesburg and flying south towards Ogies and Kriel, Hendrina to Arnot and Middelburg, and then back via eMalahleni. A year later, the devastating effects of coal-fired power, fed by vast opencast coal mines that decimate water resources, biodiversity and productive agricultural land, remain frighteningly evident.

A thick layer of smog lies over large parts of the Highveld – much more visible from the air than by those who have no choice but to breathe it. There are at least two power stations, sometimes three, wherever you look. Thousands of hectares of previously-fertile land and functioning ecosystems lie destroyed by opencast coal mining – even land that has been “rehabilitated” post coal mining, of which there is precious little in South Africa – can never again support productive crop-growing.

The Department of Mineral Resources continues to grant mining rights across the Highveld, often in areas of sensitive and irreplaceable biodiversity, and in precious fresh water catchment areas. The failure of this Department to conduct any cumulative impact assessments, to take into account the objections of other organs of state to the granting of new licences, and to conduct any meaningful enforcement of compliance with environmental laws, has created a toxic mess that poses a severe threat to South Africa’s food and water security.

And to make matters worse, the Department of Environmental Affairs has now granted Eskom, Sasol and other polluters five – and in many cases ten – more years to pollute at levels that exceed South Africa’s already-weak emission standards, despite the clear and proven health risks posed by current poor air quality on the Highveld. While new Eskom power station Kusile is still being built, at least three more privately funded coal-fired power stations are being planned for the Highveld. The provincial government and local authorities seem unable or unwilling to even try to stop this juggernaut.

And we continue to wait, despite years of promises, for Cabinet to approve a strategy to address toxic domestic coal burning for those who live amongst the power stations, but cannot access or afford electricity.

Last week, the Minister of Environmental Affairs told Parliament that the government’s policies are “pro-poor” and “pro development”. Look at these pictures, consider those people who have to breathe this air, and who rely on water downstream of this devastation, and judge for yourself.

The Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency has just launched an interactive map of all development applications in Mpumalanga, including for prospecting and mining (see pink and red areas respectively), received for comment by it between 2000 and 2015. The map makes abundantly clear the extent to which coal prospecting and mining now dominates land use on the Highveld.

Section 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

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National Environmental Crimes & Incidents Hotline (24 hours): 0800 205 005

In addition, there are a number of national and provincial hotlines that may be useful.

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