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Proposed new coal plants would make already dangerous levels of water pollution in Olifants River Catchment even more toxic

September 18, 2017 at 11:16 am

Communities relying on the Lower Olifants River are exposed to unacceptable levels of dangerous contamination in the Olifants River. Despite this the Department of Water and Sanitation continues to authorise developments that will have further devastating impacts on the water quality of the Olifants River, placing the health of communities relying on this river at enormous risk. Image: Lowvelder
Communities relying on the Lower Olifants River are exposed to unacceptable levels of dangerous contamination in the Olifants River. Despite this the Department of Water and Sanitation continues to authorise developments that will have further devastating impacts on the water quality of the Olifants River, placing the health of communities relying on this river at enormous risk. Image: Lowvelder

A 2014 epidemiological study conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and other scientific institutions reveals that communities relying on the Lower Olifants River are being exposed to alarming and unacceptable levels of dangerous contamination in the Olifants River. Despite this, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) continues to authorise developments that will have further devastating impacts on the water quality of the Olifants River and connected water resources, placing the health and wellbeing of communities and ecosystems relying on this river at enormous risk.

groundWork, with the assistance of the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), have  submitted an appeal to the Water Tribunal against a water use licence issued to KiPower (Pty) Limited for the proposed 600MW KiPower independent coal-fired power station, to be based near Delmas, Mpumalanga, and on the hydrologically-sensitive Wilge River, which flows into the Olifants River.

The reports for KiPower’s licence application show that:

  • KiPower plans to store millions of tons of toxic coal ash from the power station in unrehabilitated mine pits;
  • the current groundwater and surface water in the project area is already contaminated with acidic contaminants and hazardous metals by historic mining at the project site, and will be further contaminated by the storage of nearly 49 million tons of toxic coal ash;
  • these former mine pits are immediately adjacent to the Wilge River – categorised as a class II river system under the National Water Act, which means that no further impacts on this river can be tolerated. The Wilge River plays a vital role in diluting pollution in the already highly-contaminated Olifants River into which it flows; and
  • the proposed mitigation schemes to be relied upon by KiPower to stop this contamination flowing into the sensitive Wilge River are questionable at best. These include a flawed lining system and a pump which will need to pump polluted water in perpetuity.

Various design details and crucial information and calculations are lacking from KiPower’s reports and it is clear that there was no adequate interrogation by DWS into the impacts that KiPower would have on the sensitive surrounding water resources and wetlands.

The abovementioned 2014 study on the Lower Olifants River, which monitored environmental pollution and health risks related to water, fish, fruit and vegetable consumption, and soil contamination within five sites along the river (Botshabelo, Lepelle and Diphuti in South Africa and two sites in Mozambique) found, inter alia, that:

  • the health risks predicted from the daily consumption of 1 litre of water is anticipated to be in the order of 64 times that considered to be safe for a life-time exposure in South African study sites;
  • water samples across study sites contained excess amounts of harmful pollutants, including antimony, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, uranium, and zinc. For example, mercury levels were found to be more than 10 times the level considered to be safe for life-time consumption, based on the very low daily consumption of just 1 litre of water. In one South Africa study site arsenic in water samples was found at levels considered to be responsible for a 1 in 1000 chance of developing cancer based on the consumption of 1 litre of water per day. This is 100 times higher than the 1 in 100 000 acceptable risk as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO); and
  • the health risks predicted from the daily consumption of 240g of home-grown vegetables is anticipated to be in the order of 140 times that considered to be safe for a life-time exposure in South African study sites. This is predominantly resulting from the unacceptably-high concentrations of iron, aluminium, manganese, barium, vanadium, mercury, and copper.

Recent monitoring data from the Wilge River show that the water quality is already in severe decline, with a concerning increase in acidification and heavy metal contaminants. Sulphate levels in particular are extremely high, and pH low.  This indicates the presence of acid mine drainage – most likely already coming from the unrehabilitated mine pits at the KiPower site.[1] Sulphate loads downstream of the Wilge River have already exceeded the proposed water quality planning limits during low flow conditions.

If KiPower is allowed to go ahead as envisaged, it will likely – through its operations – contaminate the Wilge and consequently the Upper Olifants River catchment even further with pollutants such arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, vanadium, manganese, and mercury.

Alarmingly, KiPower is not the only new proposed coal plant which will be based within, and impact upon, the Olifants River Catchment.  The proposed independent 600MW Khanyisa coal-fired power station to be based near eMalahleni will also fall within the Olifants River Catchment.  Khanyisa has not yet been issued with a water use licence – although it has already been appointed a preferred bidder under the Coal Baseload IPP Procurement Programme – and it must obtain a water use licence in order to reach financial close. groundWork objected to Khanyisa’s water use licence application earlier this year.[2]

groundWork, represented by CER, has also recently launched court proceedings against the Minister of Environmental Affairs and officials at the Department of Environmental Affairs in respect of both the KiPower and Khanyisa power stations, challenging the Minister’s decisions to authorise these projects without any assessment of their climate change impacts.  Climate change is projected to also have severe impacts for South Africa’s scarce water resources including the Olifants River Catchment.  These power stations will exacerbate these climate impacts, by further polluting and utilising water, which is predicted by climate models and government policy documents to become increasingly scarce.

groundWork director Bobby Peek notes: “It is clear that, if KiPower or Khanyisa is allowed to go ahead, this will have extremely detrimental consequences for  South Africa’s precious water resources and the communities who rely on them.  This would be in exchange for a modest and unnecessary contribution to South Africa’s electricity grid – which contribution can instead be made, more cheaply, through investment in renewable energy sources. Renewable energy from solar and wind, which is cheaper than coal, does not have the same devastating impacts on our water resources as coal-fired power generation.”

The decision on whether or not KiPower’s water use licence shall remain in place is now in the hands of the Water Tribunal. If Khanyisa’s water use licence is issued, groundWork is likely to appeal this licence to the Tribunal as well.

groundWork and CER – along with Earthlife Africa Johannesburg – are part of the Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle campaign, which discourages investment in new coal-fired power stations and mines; accelerates the retirement of South Africa’s coal infrastructure; and works to enable a just transition to renewable energy systems for the people.

END

For media queries, please contact Annette Gibbs on agibbs@cer.org.za or 082 467 1295.

Life After Coal Campaign organisations (Centre for Environmental RightsEarthlife Africa Jhb and groundWork):

Centre for Environmental RightsAnnette Gibbs, Email: agibbs@cer.org.zaMobile: 082 467 1295

groundWork: Bobby Peek, Email: bobby@groundwork.org.za, Mobile: 082 464 138

Earthlife AfricaMakoma LekalakalaEmail: makoma@earthlife.org.za, Mobile: 082 682 9177

 

[1] See figure 6 and paragraph 76 of the appeal.

[2] A copy of this objection can be made available by CER or groundWork on request.

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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