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The CER’s 2014: A year for scaling mountains

12 December 2014 at 1:28 am

Back: Marthan Theart, Li-Fen Chien, Melissa Fourie, Fadia Samuels, Ayesha Motala, Catherine Horsfield, Robyn Hugo
Front: Ruth Kruger, Tracey Davies, Teboho Sebogodi, Dearbhaile O'Brien, Sylvia Kamanja
Back: Marthan Theart, Li-Fen Chien, Melissa Fourie, Fadia Samuels, Ayesha Motala, Catherine Horsfield, Robyn Hugo Front: Ruth Kruger, Tracey Davies, Teboho Sebogodi, Dearbhaile O'Brien, Sylvia Kamanja
Back: Marthan Theart, Li-Fen Chien, Melissa Fourie, Fadia Samuels, Ayesha Motala, Catherine Horsfield, Robyn Hugo Front: Ruth Kruger, Tracey Davies, Teboho Sebogodi, Dearbhaile O'Brien, Sylvia Kamanja

Back: Marthan Theart, Li-Fen Chien, Melissa Fourie, Fadia Samuels, Ayesha Motala, Catherine Horsfield, Robyn Hugo
Front: Ruth Kruger, Tracey Davies, Teboho Sebogodi, Dearbhaile O’Brien, Sylvia Kamanja  Absent: Matome Kapa (on secondment)

Last week, the formidable Southeaster allowed Centre for Environmental Rights staff to visit the top of Table Mountain for a few special, windless hours. It was a fitting end to a year in which we often felt like we were trying to scale mountains! We share some of the highs and lows of 2014 below.

We started the year with the news of a guilty plea and sentence of a mining company director in a case that CER attorneys had worked on for more than three years, representing the Bathlabine Foundation in their quest for justice and rehabilitation near Tzaneen, Limpopo. This was the first time that a sentence of direct imprisonment without the option of a fine had been imposed on a mining company director, and the sentence attracted much attention from directors, mining companies and lawyers across the country.

As the reality of the imminent minimum emissions standards for air quality started to kick in, electricity utility Eskom led a barrage of applications by a range of industries to get permission not to comply with these standards when they take effect in April 2015. Opposing these applications has taken an enormous amount of time and effort. CER attorneys, together with our partners groundWork, Earthlife Africa, and various community-based organisations, have mounted a fierce legal opposition to Eskom’s applications to postpone compliance and relax licence conditions, and our opposition to Eskom’s application to relax emissions limits in its licence for its Kriel power station at least contributed to the licensing authority’s rejection of that application. We have also started to see some results in our overall campaign to redirect investment away from coal towards renewables, such as the shelving of rejection of some new coal projects.

We have been proud to see that a number of proposals made by the CER (in most instances on behalf of other civil society and community organisations) for improvement of provisions of various amendment bills and draft regulations was adopted in legislation promulgated in 2014. These include proposals to strengthen the clarity, scientific accuracy and enforceability of provisions; access to information; administrative justice and opportunities for public participation; and penalties.

In June 2014, almost the entire CER staff traveled to the Mpumalanga Highveld to meet with local communities and activists, local authorities, and visit various mining and power generation facilities. Shortly thereafter, in response to a CER PAIA request, Eskom for the first time released two important studies of the health impacts of the emissions from various of its coal-fired power stations. Since our visit, and in view of little improvement in the ambient air quality on the Highveld, the CER and local partners on the Highveld have increased demands for improved and expedited implementation of the Highveld Priority Area’s Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP). Our attorneys and our partners have insisted that implementation meetings be held and recorded properly, that the real polluters come to present their emissions reductions strategies at these meetings, and that work gets done to achieve the objectives of the AQMP.

In June 2014, we felt compelled to start work on water and sanitation issues following the deaths of three infants from drinking contaminated water in Northwest province. Here we were confronted with intransigence from all authorities involved, and six months later we still have no real answers from authorities about exactly what happened, and what is being done to prevent such event from recurring. While we are not giving up – we currently await the outcome of a string of PAIA requests – the combination of disintegrating municipalities and poor oversight by the Northwest Provincial Government and the national Departments with Constitutional obligations has been discouraging.

In November 2014, our years of work for the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) – and VEJA’s own struggle of more than a decade – finally paid off when the Supreme Court of Appeal pronounced on ArcelorMittal South Africa’s appeal against VEJA’s claim for access to environmental records. For all of us who have been outraged by the corporate practice of claiming engagement, transparency and responsibility while polluting groundwater and air unabated, this judgement was a salve for a long-festering wound. While the battle for corporate accountability is long not over, this year, with this case, the course of history was diverted away from business as usual towards greater transparency and accountability. To quote Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

As we close our office for the year and recharge, a big word of thanks to our Board and the experts who so freely give their time to support the Centre and its work – we are deeply grateful for your contribution. We also thank our funders, big and small, who have been so supportive of what we’re trying to achieve, and all our NGO and law clinic partners without whom we wouldn’t be nearly as effective as we are. Finally, the biggest thank you to the incredibly hardworking and dedicated staff at the CER – without all of you, the Centre would not exist.

The CER will be closed from 15 December 2014 until 9 January 2015. Best wishes for the new year!