Eskom’s recent announcement in local and national newspapers that it intends to ask the Department of Environmental Affairs for more time to meet legal emission standards, was received with an expected outcry from various community and environmental pressure groups.
Lethabo in the Vaal Triangle is one of 14 coal power stations at which Eskom says it won’t be able to meet pollution standards. Eskom is now asking to defer compliance at these power stations, including Lethabo and at 11 of its coal power stations on the Mpumalanga Highveld.
Both the Vaal Triangle and the Mpumalanga Highveld were declared air pollution priority areas under the Air Quality Act in 2006 and 2007, requiring urgent action to clean up the air in order to protect human health.
One of the fiercest critics of Eskom’s request to postpone compliance is the Centre for Environmental Rights, which says despite more than a decade having passed since the Highveld and the Vaal Triangle were declared priority areas, widespread air pollution, with dangerous health impacts, remains. This is a clear violation of the Constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being.
Robyn Hugo, Head of the Pollution & Climate Change Programme of the Centre for Environmental Rights says in circumstances where Eskom cannot meet air quality standards, and where there is an electricity surplus, it should be accelerating the timeframes for its ageing stations to close, rather than asking permission to continue polluting at dangerous levels.
Eskom has thus far been let off the hook by government but the situation is changing fast. Proposed amendments to law published under the Air Quality Act will only permit one postponement of compliance – for five years – with standards which should be met by April 2020 (called “new plant” standards).
The new provisions would allow industrial facilities, by 31 March 2019, to apply for a once-off suspension of compliance timeframes with new plant standards if they provide a clear schedule for decommissioning by 2030.
The new rules would mean that all of Eskom’s stations must make the necessary investments in time to comply with new plant standards by 1 April 2025, unless they have been granted suspension, and will decommission by not later than 2030. If they cannot meet the standards by this date and have not been granted a suspension, they can no longer operate.
For an old coal power station like Lethabo to be turned around at this late stage is not foreseeable, except if there is a miraculous intervention. If Lethabo is to be closed soon, the Vaal Triangle will lose thousands of precious jobs. If the power station is allowed to operate until 2030, we will have to put up with air pollution for the next 12 years. Both outcomes are equally undesirable. It can only be hoped that Eskom has innovative plans to replace Lethabo with modern, renewable energy generation in the Vaal to deliver clean electricity without the current devastating health hazards. (Editorial comment – 22 August 2018)