Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

Ten years since 31‚000km² of the heavily polluted Mpumalanga highveld was declared a priority area‚ air quality in the area remains poor, a new report says.

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), Groundwork and the Highveld Environmental Justice Network published a report on the issue this week.

In 2007‚ Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the minister of environmental affairs and tourism at the time, declared the Mpumalanga highveld‚ then home to about 3.6-million people‚ a "priority area" in terms of the Air Quality Act.

The department said at the time that "people living and working in these areas do not enjoy air quality that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing"‚ as required by section 24 of the Constitution.

The CER said its conclusions were that‚ a decade after the declaration‚ air quality in the area remained poor and did not comply with health-based national ambient air quality standards.

Major towns like eMalahleni‚ Middelburg‚ Secunda‚ Standerton‚ Edenvale‚ Boksburg and Benoni are well known for their poor air quality.

The area is home to 12 of Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power stations‚ petrochemical plants like Sasol’s giant refinery in Secunda‚ metal smelters‚ hundreds of mines‚ fertiliser and chemical producers‚ charcoal producers, and many small industrial operations.

After the declaration in 2007‚ it took more than four years before an air quality management plan was published in March 2012.

This week’s report — titled, Broken Promises: The Failure of the Highveld Priority Area — said the department’s own review of the management plan, published for comment in February this year, showed little progress had been made.

The report said it was not known whether the air quality was actually far worse than it appeared because the Highveld Priority Area’s ambient air monitoring network had deteriorated since its declaration.

The Highveld Priority Area’s air quality management plan in 2012 listed 23 monitoring sites with available data. However‚ the department’s review in February listed just nine monitoring stations with available data.

"Only five of the nine stations publish timeous monthly reports‚ available on the South African Air Quality Information System website."

The report said it was difficult to assess directly whether key industries had reduced emissions‚ given that neither government nor industries made key data and documents publicly available for review.

The measures taken in the past 10 years to reduce dust emissions were negligible‚ it said, particularly from mine activities‚ one of the major contributors to poor air quality.

The report said the significant air pollution meant Highveld residents were dying prematurely‚ and suffering from respiratory and cardiac illnesses that inhibited their prosperity and wellbeing.

Immediate steps had to be taken to reduce emissions of pollutants. It said all facilities in the Highveld Priority Area must be required to comply with at least the minimum emission standards.

Licensing authorities should suspend the issuing of all new emission licences in the area‚ until there was consistent compliance with all national ambient air quality standards.

"Approval and licensing of any expansion plans of existing industries must be contingent on a simultaneous substantial reduction in emissions‚" the report said.

When facilities reached their scheduled end-of-life‚ particularly certain Eskom coal-fired power stations‚ air emission licences should be withdrawn‚ and decommissioning and rehabilitation enforced.

Dust control regulations had to be amended to ensure adequate monitoring‚ measurement‚ and reduction of the significant dust emissions in the area, it said.

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