Grootvlei power station in Mpumalanga. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Grootvlei power station in Mpumalanga. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Environmental activists are dragging the government to court over its alleged poor progress in cleaning up air pollution in the Mpumalanga highveld.

GroundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, have launched a landmark case to demand that the government clean up the air in the highly polluted area.

The Mpumalanga highveld is home to a number of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants as well as Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant, which have all contributed to large amounts of pollution in the area, the activists said.

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The papers cite five respondents, including the minister of environmental affairs Barbara Creecy, the national air quality officer and President Cyril Ramaphosa. In their papers, the activists argue that the government has violated the constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the area by failing to improve the deadly levels of air pollution there.

The minister of environmental affairs designated the area as the “highveld priority area” back in 2007 and in doing so acknowledged that it was an air pollution hotspot with extremely poor air quality. In 2012, the minister published an air quality management plan to clean up the pollution, but the activists say little has changed.

The activists say they have resorted to litigation because of the government’s repeated failure to enforce air quality laws. The environmental justice groups are asking the court to declare the current levels of air pollution on the highveld a violation of people’s constitutional rights, and to force the government to take meaningful action to implement and enforce the air quality management plan.

“Human exposure to toxic chemical compounds emitted by the coal plants, such as sulphur dioxide, heavy metals like mercury, and fine particulate matter, results in chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer, and contributes to strokes, heart attacks, birth defects and premature death,” the applicants said in a press release.

One expert estimate, as included in the court papers, found that emissions from the aforementioned caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in and around the highveld priority area in 2016.

“Living in Witbank, one of the most polluted areas in the country, has hugely affected our health and lives,” Vusi Mabaso, chair of Vukani, said in the statement.

“Both government and industry have continuously failed to deal with the problem, irrespective of our efforts to engage with them to ensure they take steps to protect human health.”

Bobby Peek, director of groundWork, said the organisation and the communities it represents have consistently highlighted the issue of air pollution and its negative impact on human health.  

“Our lived experience is that government is not holding the big polluters to account,” he said.

“This is a public health crisis that can no longer be ignored.”