Health impacts of coal plants

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08 September 2017
Chairperson: Ms L Dunjwa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Various stakeholders from different communities came before the Committee to register their concerns as it related to health, agriculture, sanitation, water and environmental issues confronting community members in local areas where mines were built. The presenters indicated that in terms of the range of impacts linked to air pollution, most pollution work focused on mortality and hospital admissions which were concentrated in the elderly. Furthermore, there were links to many other diseases including cancer, diabetes, asthma, stroke, obesity, heart disease and dementia. In terms of air quality limits and public protection, neither the concentration limits set by governments nor the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines were fully protective of health.

In terms of the estimated impacts of coal fired generation in South Africa, the equivalent attributable deaths for lung cancer were 157; 1 110 cases for ischaemic heart disease; 73 cases for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; 719 cases for stroke; and 180 cases for lower respiratory infection. The monetary value for all these cases combined was an estimated 2.1 million US dollars. However, the estimates did not include impacts of emissions from mining; transportation of coal; occupational health for miners; and contamination of water.

Furthermore, communities were seeking assistance from government and local departments, but nothing was being done to assist. Emalahleni was declared as one of the most air polluted areas in the country yet nothing was done to assist nearby communities with air pollution. When community members brought these issues forward to companies, communities were told that companies were granted licenses. In Lephalale, the Eskom Medupi Power Station produced three times more CO2 emissions than the whole of Britain, exposing community members at exacerbated health risks. In addition, community members in Mtubatuba in KZN were continuously forced to bare the blasts from the nearby mine that was initially promising to foster development in the area.

Development was promised to local communities at the inception of these mines, yet they remained the least developed areas even though the areas were housing mining companies. It was rather ironical that these mines actually destroyed prospects of agricultural development. In addition, community members were forced to bare scarcity of water and the mines also produced sanitation issues. Community representatives lamented the fact that people were sick and continuously endangered, and appealed that government should take concerns seriously because submitted petitions and marches were neglected.

Members received the concerns, and suggestion were raised that perhaps all the relevant departments, along with the mining companies as well as community beneficiaries, needed to come together and interrogate these issues because the Portfolio Committee on Health could not achieve the desired outcome in silo as the rest of the issues pertained to other portfolios and departments. 

Meeting report

[PMG did not attend the first part of the meeting and what follows is an incomplete record of proceedings].

Briefing by Dr Mike Holland on the health impacts of coal-fired power generation in South Africa
Dr Mike Holland, Ecometrics Research and Consulting (EMRC), took the Committee through the presentation and stated that in terms of the range of impacts linked to air pollution, most pollution work focused on mortality and hospital admissions which were concentrated in the elderly. Furthermore, there were links to many other diseases including cancer, diabetes, asthma, stroke, obesity, heart diseases and dementia. In terms of air quality limits and public protection, neither the concentration limits set by governments nor the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines were fully protective of health.

Dr Holland also touched on the health burden of outdoor air pollution in the United Kingdom, and alluded that each year, air pollution led to the equivalent of 40 000 deaths in the UK from outdoor air pollution, valued at more than £20 billion. It was important to note that much of that impact was from exposure below statutory limits. These findings were relevant in other countries as well. The role of the medical profession was very pivotal because it could deal with symptoms, and he suggested that the report could be used to get the medical profession to recognise the impact of air pollution on health.

Furthermore, he submitted the following selected recommendations for action by the health profession:

  • Act now, think long term
  • Educate professionals
  • Protect the public when air pollution levels are high
  • Tackle inequality, protecting those at most risk, and
  • Lead by example in the National Health Service

In terms of estimated impacts of coal fired generation in South Africa, the equivalent attributable deaths for lung cancer were 157; 1 110 cases for ischaematic heart disease; 73 cases for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; 719 cases for stroke; and 180 cases for lower respiratory infection. The monetary value for all these cases combined was an estimated 2.1 million US dollars. However, the estimates did not include impacts of emissions from mining; transport of coal; occupational health for miners; and contamination of water.

In conclusion, he noted that coal fired power generation was a major source of air pollution in South Africa. This pollution had a serious impact on health, equivalent to 2 200 attributable deaths per year, and associated ill health. However, the analysis did not include all coal related emissions. The precise numbers were ‘uncertain’ to a degree; the science behind them was not. The total costs associated with these impacts exceeded $2 billion annually, and these impacts were material and should be considered in the future energy policy.

Mr Bobby Peek, Director, GroundWork, stated that members of the affected communities and GroundWork worked together to answer all questions when speaking about the periphery because they understood the concerns and issues that were facing communities. However, he asked who profited from alternative energy, and so they were engaging with local government to ascertain how it would produce its own renewable energy in Mpumalanga rather than giving it to the private sector. He emphasized the importance of ensuring that it was not only the middle that would have access to renewable energy but also communities in the periphery areas.

Dr Holland responded that for the study, he was able to use fairly limited data on the population mortality rate in South Africa, and that data was available in the international studies. A crude approach was taken in terms of conducting the study even in parts of Europe and countries with similar GDP and economies with South Africa. The study introduced some uncertainty, but at least now there was an idea of the scale of the problem.

With regards to why the study focused only on coal, there was a modelling that would be needed to include some parts of the analysis. The study was focused specifically on coal. The gargantuan concerns about brown haze in London led to a lot of legislation, not just in the UK but in USA and Europe, and increasingly similar legislation in China. The quality of coal in South Africa was very low and a lot of things were seemingly burnt to get the required amount of coal. However, we could not blame the coal, the coal not being good provided an imperative to look at other options that were available.

In relation to the emission, he stated that his understanding was that what was set in law needed to be where a set of standards could be established.

Mr Peek stated that the data of the pollution was coming in, but it was not yet 100%, the colloquium would speak about it next week. The data was scattered at the moment, but more and more data would be coming forward.

Dr Holland stated that in Europe all the industrial evolutions and the big companies and manufacturers were required by law to make public their emissions and publish their data on a register that was made public.

Mr Peek further highlighted that the big companies such as BP, Sasol and Shell were refusing to release this type of information to the public even though the Centre for Environmental Rights won the case in the Supreme Court of Appeal for this to be so in 2015, they were still resisting. This was in the law, but the public still did not have that information.

Dr Holland stated that BP was meeting these obligations in Europe, and he could not see why it was not providing this information in South Africa. All this information was made available in the public domain, on the Internet. It was released, and then quality checks were performed but if it was withdrawn from the public domain after checks were performed, the updated information had to be released so that the public could stay informed. He could not come up with the technology of power generation in South Africa, but he suggested that we look at the different technologies, as well as their advantages and disadvantages. Lastly, the slightly good news was that the shareholders would be affected by the pollution, albeit not as much because they lived in areas that were not polluted.

It was shocking to hear that the communities that were close to the power stations did not have electricity. It was also mentioned that once land was destroyed, it was gone forever, but there was an issue of ownership with all these things. There were different models in different countries, and he suggested South Africa could pick up on those models and come up with something that would work best for the country.

Inputs, concerns and submissions from community members
Ms Felicia Lelonyane from Emalahleni in Mpumalanga, stated that her area was declared to be a priority area since it was the most polluted area. She said that the concern was coal and the pollution did not affect the environment alone but the community’s health; hence the community came forth to raise these concerns. People were sick; if one went to the Vaal and Highveld regions, one would find how sick people were in those areas and the Department of Health did not come forward to assist. On the ground the community was affected and when people were sick, the Department of Health should actually carry the burden of taking care of the community. As a community they believed that coal caused disease and many related issues such as mortality, amongst others. Another problem was what the coal did to the community; the Department abandoned the community completely even though the air quality was not for human conduct. The community was a big population and could not move as they lived in informal settlements. The conundrum was that the departments or government knew how badly populated the area was, but nothing was being done to assist.

She said that one could not take away the fact that these nearby mines provided job opportunities, but they were stuck in the system and needed to be informed on the alternative plan on how to get medical assistance. The hospitals were always full, and respiratory diseases were caused by these mines and these hospitals knew about the causes, but nothing was being done to assist the community. She felt that they were an endangered species. They wanted to know what government’s responsibility was, and what was being done to hold these companies accountable. Government continued to give these companies pollution licenses and other licenses, and when they went to complain they were told that the companies had the licenses to carry out business whilst government was aware that these companies were perpetually endangering communities. She said that the community needed help, and not statistics.

The Chairperson asked whether the Committee was expected to respond because Ms Lelonyane raised quite a number of issues that were indeed concerning. However, all the community members could raise their concerns and then perhaps assess where the officials and the Members could respond.

Mr Peek suggested that everybody speak because there might be issues that linked up.
A community member who spoke in isiZulu expressed his discontent about how government was neglecting his community in assisting with the curbing of hazardous health issues members of the community were experiencing. His biggest concern was the removal of tombstones of families and friends who were buried, and this was one of the biggest issues because communities were not well informed or educated on how these procedures were to be conducted because they lived in rural areas. The mining companies did not give the communities an opportunity to conduct their own research; people knew what they wanted, and therefore these companies should not force development in their communities as forced development was not to the benefit of the community. He said that the community should not be forced into development and end up being painted as people who were against development. When these tombstones were removed, it was the community that was affected because they were removed to places that were far and in some instances people did not know where their families’ tombstones were moved to. Community members practised their traditional customs, and part of having their ancestor’s tombstones close was so that they could be able to do so. This translated into cultural and traditional destruction.

He expressed his disappointment about the absence of the Department of Mineral Resources because these were the concerns that were raised with the Department time and time again, but nothing came to fruition. He reminded officials and Members that at the end of the day they were people just like community members and they went back to their communities after work. The community was given empty promises time and time again about the construction of clinics to attend to health issues that emanated from these mining companies nearby. The community was for development, but this development should not be one-sided. People had to be respected because all these decision that were taken affected the community, and in most instances communities were not consulted about these decisions.

Mr Bongani Phiyese from Mtubatuba in KwaZulu Natal, voiced the community’s frustration about the problems pertaining to community development. In 2005, the community leadership convened a community meeting and introduced the Tendelcol Mine; the community was very excited about the project or development. However, what happened after that was not development; the community was suffering from the constant blasting that was happening in that mine. A cloud of coal would come up and end up in the houses and this affected the community. Several incidents were raised as a result of this, so the call today was for the Department of Health to intervene. People have lost their livelihood because they could not grow vegetables anymore because the soil was not fertile for vegetation and plantation. In addition, there was now scarcity of water in the area as a result thereof as well as a number of diseases that community members were experiencing. He appealed to the officials and the Department to hastily come forth and assist the community. The community did all it could to bring this to the attention of the Department of Mineral Resources and other relevant departments; petitions were circulated and submitted; complaints were brought but nothing was done. He lamented that this was the last hope. If Parliament did not do anything, then there was nowhere else the community could turn to.

Ms Elana Rheyrene from Lephalale in Limpopo, representing various women groups, said that she was present to ask for help and was sent to inform officials that the gap between people on the ground and the politicians became too big. There were some people who forgot that they were representing the people on the ground. In effect, nobody seemed to be hearing them because they fought against huge companies. Public participation was not equal to community consultation; it seemed to be used as a tick box and rubber stamp for a lot of things. These companies came in with nice suits and lied to the community at ground level, and they lied to Members as well. They promised development, and there was “great” development in Lephalale, where Eskom’s Mutimba Power Station, Exxaro Mine and the world’s famous Medupi was, but over-population developed and so the infrastructure crumbled. There were water problems; sewage problems; pot holes in roads; crime rates increased; HIV/AIDS numbers increased, time and social problems went hand in hand. There were now more than six to seven rape cases submitted to the local police station.

She said that the Committee could help the community carry the message, and when Parliament was making laws and regulations, it had to remember the communities. There were mines in those areas that were granted licenses to do business, but people were paying the price for decisions made in other parts of the country. The Eskom Mutimba Power Station was emitting more CO2 gas than the whole of Britain and the Medupi Power Station, when at full capacity, would emit twice as much CO2 gas than the whole of Britain. So, when people were sitting under the trees they were breathing three times more CO2 gas than someone who was in Britain working in the industrial areas. The community was paying with the land. Commercial and subsistence farmers were no longer able to plant in those areas. In addition, this also affected water consumption making agriculture difficult to thrive and food security was suffering. She also lamented about how this affected the environment and animals in the nearby areas. She appealed to Members and officials to assist the communities to carry the message right across.

The Chairperson noted that community members touched on a number of departments, so it would be difficult for the Members and the Committee to respond to all the issues that were raised. Therefore, her comments would be centred on Health. With that being said, the most important people who should also partake in this dialogue were mine owners. Therefore, communities needed to take that into consideration. Politicians were the legislative arm in government and there was only so much that could be done.

The Chairperson said that speakers mentioned issues that were occurring at the local and provincial level, so at with stage did they speak to the departments at provincial level? The presenters needed to inform the Committee exactly what had to be done so that the Committee could take a decisive step on what had to happen next, taking into consideration the inputs provided by members of the communities.

Mr Peek thanked the Chairperson and stated that they would make sure that all the required additional information went through to her office as well as what the communities wanted. GroundWork was working with the local departments and clinics to bring them to awareness of what community members were experiencing. GroundWork would respond formally to the Chairperson at a later stage.

A Committee Member stated that when they received this information yesterday, she was under the impression that Members from various Committees would be present. This was a very broad spectrum that needed to be attended to; it was not only based on Health. Many other departments were actually affected here such as Mineral Resources; Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Economic Development; and Water and Sanitation as well other relevant portfolios. The process was slightly complicated because there were various structures at local level that needed to be held to account such as the local municipalities and provincial departments. Speakers spoke about the bosses, but what about the beneficiaries from within the communities who were enjoying the benefits? All these stakeholders needed to be brought together so that these issues could be interrogated holistically.

Dr P Maesela (ANC) stated that when one was not united one could not achieve anything, and this was the modus operandi of the colonial government; it divided communities and people and turned it against its cultures and traditions. Food could not be grown in the sky; mining was not food so if communities did not have land or that land was owned by mines, people were left with nothing. Currently, the land in those areas was destroyed people could not do anything. It was true that people were grossly misled and lied to, as well as politicians. Lephalale was supposed to be the most developed area with less unemployment rates, but now people were suffering in those areas and had no ownership of land. These mine owners were thieves, and they did not care about it. People needed to be conscious of that and unite and fight these injustices.

Mr T Nkonzo (ANC) stated that the Committee heard the concerns that were raised. Fortunately, some Members were not interacting with stakeholders for the first time and Members were aware of some of the frustrations, concerns and challenges. At the level of Parliament, there was always a balancing act that needed to be done. In some areas one found that community members would lobby for the opening of the mines, arguing that those mines would provide jobs and economic freedom. Hence, the government subscribed to sustainable development because development could not occur at all levels, but it needed to account future generations. Therefore, people should not be too emotional about these things, but they needed to be dealt with in order to be curbed so that community members could live sustainable lives. Other stakeholders needed to be brought in so that everyone was in a space to measure what civil society did as well as the mines, and intervene appropriately as government.

A Member of the Committee commented that these mining companies would come into these areas and promise communities to build clinics to assist community members that experienced health issues emanating from the mines. However, in doing so, they did not provide medical support and personnel and then the Department of Health was confronted with the issue of making those provisions.

The Chairperson suggested that to make the process more directing, GroundWork had to write a letter to the Office of the Speaker because that was the office that had the authority delegate the work coming from outside. This was a process that would pave a way forward.

The meeting was adjourned.


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