Eco group hauls minister to court over air pollution standards
They say a decision to double the permissible sulphur dioxide emissions weakens already 'sloppy' standards
Environmental justice group groundWork has launched court proceedings against environmental affairs minister Nomvula Mokonyane and the president of SA to set aside the government’s plan “to weaken air pollution standards”.
Mokonyane is being hauled to court for a decision made by her predecessor, Derek Hanekom, who was acting in that position following the death of Edna Molewa in September 2018.
The group is represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER).
For about six years, groundWork and its partners in the Life after Coal campaign, the CER and Earthlife Africa have been opposing ongoing efforts by industry to delay and evade meeting more stringent air pollution standards, it said.
In its founding affidavit, which Times Select has seen, the group wants the court to set aside the decision by Hanekom to double the permissible sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions for existing solid-fuel combustion installations from 500 milligrams per normal cubic metre to 1,000 from April 2020.
It added: “The weakening of the standards gazetted by the minister would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020. This includes the already heavily polluted Vaal, Highveld and Waterberg Priority Areas.”
When SO2 combines with water, it forms sulphuric acid, which is the main component of acid rain.
In court papers, it accused the acting minister of failing to comply with legislation that guides the department on amending legislation.
It also claimed the department failed to give proper notice to them or members of the public to submit meaningful representations and objections.
The group argued in its court papers that the exposure of millions of South Africans to high levels of air pollution, including SO2, directly affects their constitutional rights to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and to have the environment protected for future generations.
In their submission to court, the group also mentioned that air pollution is the world’s largest environmental health threat.
“SO2 can affect the respiratory system and functions of the lungs and causes irritation of the eyes. Studies have linked SO2 to low birth weight in infants and an increased risk for gestational diabetes mellitus, stillbirths and pre-term births,” it said.
The group argued that if they were afforded an opportunity to comment on the proposed amendment, they would have objected to any weakening of the minimum emission standards because the standards are already sloppy and air pollution in many parts of the country exposes people to dire health affects.
“Instead of enforcing compliance with our already weak standards, government now wants to weaken the standards even further. If government will not defend the right to a healthy environment, we have no option but to ask the court to do so,” said Bobby Peek, director of groundWork.
The doubling of the SO2 standards – from 500 mg/Nm3 to 1,000 mg/Nm3 – was introduced by the department of environmental affairs as an amendment to important air pollution standards known as the minimum emission standards (MES).
On October 31 2018, Hanekom proceeded to publish the amendments to the MES in their final form, which groundWork is objecting to.“Although other proposed changes to the relevant law were made available for comment in May 2018, there was no indication whatsoever that any changes were being considered in relation to the MES for coal-fired boilers,” the group said.Department spokesperson Albi Modise said he could not comment on the matter until the minister had filed responding papers to court.The minister is expected to file the responding papers at the end of May.