| Load shedding can't compete with health, human life - environmental groups

The Morning Mails | Load shedding can't compete with health, human life - environmental groups

The state of disaster on the energy crisis should not be an opportunity to bring more power online at the expense of people and the planet, says a climate activist. But power utility Eskom has already been granted an exemption to to exceed emission limits at Kusile, with climate justice groups raising concerns that this will be detrimental to health and lives. Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, on Tuesday, 14 March, granted Eskom an exemption from some requirements related to the application process for it to operate Kusile without flue gas desulphurisation - which is required to limit sulphur dioxide emissions. The power utility will still have to apply for an exemption with the National Air Quality officer, but this will be for a once-off postponement that will apply until 31 March 2025. Eskom (which removes harmful sulphur dioxide emissions) from Kusile unit 1 in October 2022.

The failure also impacted the operations at units 2 and unit 3. This means over 2 000 MW of power is out of service. Given the need to limit load shedding, Eskom seeks an exemption to have to operate the flue gas desulphurisation for a temporary period of 13 months in order to bring online 2 100MW. This would reduce load shedding by two levels, Creecy said in a statement. The repair required at unit 1 is expected to only be completed by December 2024.

Eskom envisions operating the three units with temporary stacks, without flue gas desulphurisation from November 2023. Creecy noted this would likely increase sulphur dioxide emissions in excess of the limits in Kusile's Atmospheric Emission Licence. Creecy noted the socioeconomic impacts of load shedding, as well as the health impacts from exposure to sulphur dioxide emissions, especially for communities living close to coal-fired power stations. "In the light of the competing factors, I have been called on to make an extraordinarily difficult decision," Creecy said. The Minister has allowed the expedited application process – but with certain conditions.

Among these is that Eskom issues a public notice in two national newspapers explaining the reasons for their application, as well as that the utility holds a public participation process of 14 days. Eskom welcomed the decision by Minister Creecy and that it would comply with the conditions of the exemption. "Based on the exemption provided by the Minister, Eskom intends to submit its final application for approval to operate the temporary stacks, to the relevant authorities in April 2023," the power utility said in a statement issued on Friday. It also reiterated that if the final application is approved, then it would operate the three units at Kusile without flue gas desulphurisation technology, but during that time it would take steps to "mitigate the impact of SO2 (sulphur dioxide) emissions on air quality." It was unsurprising that the utility was granted an exemption, said Gabriel Klaasen, social and environmental justice activist from Africa Climate Alliance.

"The South African government is not prioritising the responsibility they have, not only to us, but future generations to come," Klaasen said, adding: Klaasen said that leaders appear to be ignoring the constitutional right to a safe and healthy environment. The Life After Coal Campaign – a joint campaign by environmental justice groups Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights – has raised concerns about the impact of Eskom potentially being allowed to bypass sulphur dioxide pollution limits as it would have major health impacts. "At this stage, it is not clear whether Eskom has or is proposing to conduct a health impact study of its proposed plan," a statement from Life After Coal read. Life After Coal meanwhile pointed out that sulphur dioxide causes various health impacts. Exposure to sulphur dioxide can impact the respiratory system – such as irritating the airways, and causing illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma, according to Dr Amanda Brand from the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

"Other organ systems can also be affected through symptoms like skin redness, damage to the eyes and mucous membranes, and worsening of existing heart disease," Brand added. A study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air showed that continues to operate its coal-fired power stations without meeting emissions standards. Life After Coal put forward that over 13 months, hundreds of people would die from sulphur dioxide pollution, but if the bypass is applied for three years, this could be over a thousand lives lost. These would be over and above the loss of life from particle pollution (dust, soot and other matter) in the Mpumalanga Highveld. A high court last year found that the air quality in the Mpumalanga Highveld Priority Area was so poor to an environment that is not harmful to health and well-being.

Life After Coal had also written to Creecy, ahead of her decision, to raise its concerns and also ask questions about Eskom's application: Life After Coal also noted that one of the conditions for the expedited application process Eskom will follow is that the power utility mitigates or prevent the exposure of employees and surrounding communities to harm. This includes having independent health screenings and referring affected parties to health facilities for treatment, if necessary. "Intentionally making people sick and then referring them to the doctor for treatment would be a shocking violation of human rights, especially considering the inadequate public healthcare system," Life After Coal said. The matter at hand is not as simple as simply comparing load shedding against exceeding a pollution limit, explained Brand. "The long-term health effects, many of which can't be predicted, add considerably to the burden on the health care system and the population, creating further knock-on effects for the economy and general quality of life of South Africans," said Brand.

Exposure to sulphur dioxide is associated with increased hospitalisations for asthma, as well as emergency room visits. "High levels of pollutants are also associated with school absenteeism," Brand added. Additional pollution also negatively impacts the environment. Sulphur dioxide causes acid rain and eventually the acidification of soil, which is harmful to plant life and even food availability, Brand said. Life After Coal believes that government should see the malfunction of the flue gas desulphurisation at Kusile as an opportunity to phase out coal and roll out renewables like solar PV and wind instead.

Greenpeace Africa similarly advocates for the rollout of renewables, but this seems to be ignored. "Thousands of people die every year because of emissions that result from Eskom's toxic addiction to coal. That has not changed in recent years. What has changed is that the South African government has been so inert and ineffective that they have allowed load shedding to become a crisis. "Now, in the name of their own inadequacy, they will put more lives at risk in communities that are already beaten down by the coal industry," said Greenpeace Africa's climate and energy campaigner Nhlanhla Sibisi.

When faced with a crisis, the government has made a choice that knowingly puts people in Mpumalanga at increased risk of stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease," Sibisi said.

Releated Posts