Cooling towers at Eskom's Kendal coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG
Cooling towers at Eskom's Kendal coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG

Eskom says pollution reduction equipment at its biggest operational plant has not been working properly since early 2018.

The equipment, which cuts particulate emissions at the 4,116MW coal-fired Kendal power station in Mpumalanga province, began malfunctioning in early 2018. It was then damaged during a strike in July and August of that year.

The state-owned utility’s inability to curb pollution from its plants, which experts say kills hundreds of people a year, has prompted a lawsuit against the government from environmental activists because of the high pollution levels from Eskom and Sasol in Mpumalanga. SA’s emission limits are more lenient than those in China and India.

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“Kendal power station is currently operating with very high particulate emissions,” Eskom said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The high emissions began at the beginning of last year.”

The delays in ensuring that Kendal complies with pollution standards are “unacceptable,” said Robyn Hugo, programme head for pollution and climate change at the Cape Town-based Centre for Environmental Rights, a legal organisation that represents environmental activists.

“For far too long, Eskom has run rough-shod over the rights of people affected by its pollution — our constitution demands that Eskom operate in compliance with the law,” she said.

While Eskom said it initially began addressing operational issues to cut the dust emission, a strike meant that it had to operate for a time without using its so-called fly-ash removal systems. “This resulted in significant damage to the dust-handling plant and electrostatic precipitators,” Eskom said.

Fly ash is produced from burning powdered coal. Electrostatic producers collect particles on charged plates using an electrostatic charge.

Kendal operates six 686MW units and “the damage on units five and six is significant,” Eskom said. Short maintenance outages have allowed some repairs and a long outage scheduled for later this year will allow some repairs to unit five at a cost of more than R50m.

The world’s largest dry-cooled coal-fired power station when it opened in 1994, Kendal will be outstripped in size when Eskom fully opens its Medupi and Kusile plants each of which has a capacity of about 4,800MW.