Watchdogs breathe easier after winning pollution battle
Outgoing environmental affairs minister has reversed a decision to double the sulphur dioxide emissions limit
A watchdog that challenged the environmental affairs ministry in court earlier in May over the government’s plan “to weaken air pollution standards” has won a key battle.
This week, Nomvula Mokonyane, who was environmental affairs minister at the time the regulations were gazetted, went back on her predecessor Derek Hanekom’s decision to raise the sulphur dioxide (SO₂) emission limit from 500mg to 1,000mg.
Mokonyane on Tuesday published a notice in the Government Gazette that she was amending the decision taken by Hanekom in October that allowed an increase in the amount of emissions.
For the past six years groundWork and its partners in the Life after Coal campaign, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and Earthlife Africa have opposed efforts by industry to delay and evade meeting more stringent air pollution standards.
The group went to court, arguing that the exposure of millions of South Africans to high levels of air pollution, including SO₂, would directly affect their constitutional rights to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and to have the environment protected for future generations.
On Wednesday the group’s director, Bobby Peek, said it would fight all efforts to weaken the “already poor” pollution standards.
“While we are relieved that the minister has finally withdrawn the illegal provision to double SO₂ pollution, groundWork and other community organisations will not only continue to oppose this proposed doubling, but will fight all efforts to weaken our already poor pollution standards”, said Peek. “Industries continue to place profit over people, disregarding and minimising the impact their pollution has on communities’ health and wellbeing.”
CER head Robyn Hugo said: “SA law should be following the global trend of reducing pollution from industrial facilities as a matter of urgency. Instead, we are demonstrating less commitment to clean air and human health than other developing countries.”
In its submission to court, the group said air pollution was 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 preterm births,” it said.
It said the weakening of the standards gazetted by Hanekom would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously allowed SO₂ pollution from April 1 2020. “This includes the already heavily polluted Vaal, Highveld and Waterberg Priority Areas.”
The group said Eskom and Sasol were SA’s biggest emitters of SO₂. When SO₂ combines with water, it forms sulphuric acid, which is the main component of acid rain.