Cost of air pollution in SA: DoH briefing; ESKOM & SASOL on non-compliance with environmental laws

Environment, Forestry and Fisheries

17 August 2021
Chairperson: Chairperson: Mr F Xasa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Portfolio Committee was briefed in a virtual meeting by the Department of Health on the cost of air pollution and by Sasol, and Eskom on their non-compliance with environmental laws.

Committee Members were not satisfied with the initiatives by the Department of Health to safeguard the health of South Africa's citizens against air pollution. The Department was advised to broadcast air pollution levels of each city in the country on national news as part of weather bulletins. The Committee further asked the Department to prioritise and instil fixed timelines on their air quality studies. The Department said that they were collaborating with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment which set the timelines.

Sasol was questioned about its adherence to Minimum Emissions Standards. Sasol said that the emissions limit for sulphur dioxide was currently 1 000 mg/cm3 and there was no legal requirement for them to comply with the 500 mg/cm3 emission limit suggested by some members. Sasol also said that the Portfolio Committee must acknowledge that the air quality limit was different to the greenhouse gases limit stipulated by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Therefore, the limit set by Sasol was achievable and reasonable.

Members asked Sasol about their strategies towards a green hydrogen economy. Sasol said they would have both public and private green hydrogen projects, because it was important to leverage existing assets and financing through global partnerships. Sasol said they have been reporting greenhouse gas emissions data to the Department of Environment Forestry and Fisheries for a few years. They had reduced their emissions, established a voluntary carbon budget and were compliant with the carbon tax. They further added that they spent about R100 million a year on social investments, including health programmes.

Eskom was asked if they would be able to achieve a just transition to low carbon emissions given challenges of corruption, lack of management, and financial constraints. Eskom said that decarbonisation of the energy system required financing and they had been engaging with multiple international financing institutions. They would be keen to support a decarbonisation project by making loans at discounted interest rates and by partnering with the National Treasury and other government departments. Eskom said they had identified several projects to decarbonise their electricity generating systems. About 8 000 MW of projects would cost about R180 billion to fund. Eskom would also build about 8000 km of new transmission lines, which would connect the best of solar and wind systems to the electricity markets.

Meeting report

Opening remarks

Mr P Modise (ANC) was acting Chairperson while the Committee waited for the Chairperson to join the meeting.

Mr Modise asked the Committee to adopt the agenda of the meeting.

Mr N Singh (IFP) said that the agenda lacked a report from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) on their interventions with the Department of Health (DoH), Sasol and Eskom regarding matters that were to be discussed at the meeting. He asked for this item to be included in the next meeting.

The Secretary of the Committee said that the request by Mr Singh had arrived late the previous night. She said she would brief the Committee in the next meeting.

Ms S Mbatha (ANC) moved for the adoption of the agenda on condition that the suggestion by Mr Singh would be tabled for adoption in the next meeting.

Ms N Gantsho (ANC) asked which meeting the Committee was referring to. Was it the next day’s meeting?

The Director-General (DG) of the DEFF, Ms Nomfundo Tshabalala, said that the Department had not prepared the report. It would not be finished by the following day, but would be sent to the Committee once completed The DG welcomed the presenting teams.

Presentation by the DoH

The presenters were the acting Deputy Director- General (DDG) for Primary Health Care, Ms Aneliswa Cele, and the DDG for Climate Change Impacts, Ms Bono Nemukula.

They told the Committee that South Africa relied on energy generation sources that caused air pollution on a large scale.  The use of pollution-causing energy sources for cooking and heating in middle and poor households increased the risks identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Adverse effects ranged from restrictions in physical activity to emergency room visits for asthma or even hospitalisations for respiratory and cardiovascular causes, to premature mortality. The economic costs of such effects were large.

The Committee was briefed on several programmes for addressing air quality in cooperation with other government departments. (See attached presentation.)

Discussion

Mr Singh said the information and statistics received from the DoH were very worrying considering that the country, after 25 years democratic government, was still at great risk of exposure to pollution. The presentation referred to interdepartmental cooperation and highlighted several programmes but not enough was done by all responsible departments to ensure that the country’s pollution levels were within acceptable international standards.  He said that if you took the industries that were operating in the Durban South Basin and placed them in a different country, they would have been shut down a long time ago. Why should there be different standards for countries?  To what extent did the DoH follow the standards set by the WHO when it came to pollution levels?  Why were pollution level reports for each city not broadcasted on national news channels? Not enough was being done to safeguard South African citizens from pollution. What were the timeframes for the DoH studies on environmental pollution? Why were non-governmental organizations (NGOs) not being appropriately used to help the universities to speed up the progress of these studies?  How could the polluting companies be made to comply with emissions standards and be held accountable for the health risks they imposed on the surrounding communities?

Mr D Bryant (DA) asked the DoH what it had done to hold the DEFF, Eskom and Sasol accountable.  Were there any commitments from these entities that they would step up going forward?

Ms A Weber (DA) concurred with Mr Singh on study and reporting timelines. She said it was important to present full reports and results to meetings such as the current one, so that they could be thoroughly critiqued.  She said that she was delighted that Mpumalanga Province was being prioritised for the DoH’s projects because Sasol was situated there. What would these projects entail? What tool would be used to improve the air quality monitoring systems around the province?

Ms C Phillips (DA) asked who was responsible for the delay of the results from the studies and whether they would face any consequences.

Ms Mbatha asked about premature deaths in South Africa because of domestic air quality problems. In which areas had domestic air quality monitoring been piloted? Was it in the townships where people were most affected? What were the financial implications? Where were the DoH environmental health practitioners to scrutinise new establishments and solve many of the problems? Why was the DoH not involving the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) in the social tools rather than relying on the WHO?  What was being done about the industries near Pretoria West residential areas?  Besides the established relationship with the public clinics and hospitals, how was the DoH involving the private sector? Could all the reports regarding air quality and monitoring be submitted to the Portfolio Committee?

Mr Modise emphasised that the Committee could not always wait for studies to be completed.  “We need commitments on the time frames of these studies. We have a revolutionary and moral duty to report to the people we represent on how far air quality studies are.” Could the Committee please be given a clear sign? Was it two months or two or six years?

Responses

Ms Nemukula said that the studies addressing air pollution in Mpumalanga were in line with the international standard fset by the WHO.  The DoH was conducting a study to evaluate available data and capacities for conducting a baseline assessment for outdoor and indoor pollution in Mpumalanga. The study would also assist in implementing domestic indoor air quality guidelines and create benchmark pathways for similar studies within all the provinces and municipalities. The environmental practitioners in the municipalities and provinces would be capacitated to assess the impacts that were associated with indoor fuels that were utilised by the communities.

The DoH was working with DEFF on the unsubmitted studies on the issue of air quality. The DEFF had commissioned the studies and the timeframes were set and guided by them. In the interim, the DoH iwas working with the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the WHO to ensure that they came up with measures to protect communities against air pollution.  The SAMRC supported the DoH with strategy and research for domestic air quality and climate change.

Ms Nemukula said that all the DoH reports regarding air quality would be made available to the Portfolio Committee.  She said that the DoH also monitored indicators in the private health sector. Both the public and private sectors were mandated to aid the government on diseases that must be prioritised. She highlighted that the programmes by the environmental health practitioners were continuous in scrutinising environmental impacts and making recommendations. She said that the DoH set guidelines and norms to be implemented at a municipal level and that they would work towards strengthening their relations with the DEFF to ensure that they offered consistent and clear reporting to the Portfolio Committee.

Further discussion

Mr Singh asked to what extent the DoH and other related government departments engaged with environmental justice organisations like GroundWorks – they seemed to have a lot of information. “We need to come together on this air quality matter as a country, otherwise we will forever put our people at risk.” To what extent did the DoH have legislative power to prosecute companies that flouted regulations in terms of excessive pollutants in the air? Had they ever prosecuted a company?

Ms Mbatha said she was happy that the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) of the DoH were still monitored by the environmental health practitioners.  She requested a DoH report on the disasters at Wentworth Engen oil refinery and United Phosphorus Limited (UPL). Could the DoH place emphasis on involving the highly capacitated NIOH and Universities such as the University of NorthWest and Witwatersrand University in air quality measuring? Could th4e DoH comment on the industries at Tshwane and their impacts on the community?

Ms Phillips asked for timelines to be prioritised, not just reports on guidelines

Ms Nemukula indicated that they had worked with some NGOs following resolutions made during World Environmental Day in 2019. GroundWorks had partnered with the DEFF and other identified NGOs on the air quality focus group. She said that the DoH was part and parcel of the technical working group on air quality with the DEFF and the Department of Energy. Strategies and legislation were approved within this network. She stressed that the DoH had no prosecuting powers because the mandate lay with the DEFF.

Ms Nemukula said that the DoH would start with domestic indoor air monitoring as per approved guidelines. The environmental health practitioners within local government and municipalities were currently being trained to assist with domestic indoor air monitoring. She said that the pilot project at Mpumalanga with the WHO would unpack how the DoH proceeded with the environmental health practitioners.

Ms Cele emphasised that prosecutions occured at municipal level, because that was where the powers were. The environmental health practitioners were trained to enforce their municipal bylaws. She highlighted that the NIOH was part of the process of establishing guidelines and they were working very closely with them during the Covid-19 pandemic. She said that the timeline issue raised by the Committee was well noted, and they would improve onwards.

Ms Tshabalala said she noted the concerns raised in the meeting, especially around the study timelines. She requested to be allowed to respond to these matters in full the following week.

Sasol presentation

The Sasol presentation team were  Mr Marcel Mitchelson, Senior Vice President for Government Relations; Ms Wilma Groenewald, Senior Manager for Business Development; and Ms Shamini Harrington, Vice Chairperson for Climate Change.

They told the Committee that Sasol was compliant with its air quality obligations. Since 2014 it had progressed from 80 percent of emission sources being compliant with the Minimum Emissions Standards (MES) to 98 percent of emission sources currently being compliant.

In respect of the residual compliance milestones for which postponements until 2025 had been granted, Sasol was on track to meet particulate matter (PM), nitrous oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compound (VOC) MES standards by 1 April 2025 at both the Sasolburg and Secunda plants and at the Joint Venture Natref operations. Sasol was on track to meet sulphur dioxide (SO2 ) MES standards at its Sasolburg and Natref operations by 1 April 2025. There was one remaining air quality challenge, namely boiler SO2 compliance at the Secunda steam plant operations. Sasol would not be able to timeously comply by 1 April 2025. (See attached presentation).

Discussion

Ms Weber thanked Sasol for the presentation and asked what was still required to make the retrofitted boilers totally functional? How long did it take to retrofit a boiler? The sulphate baseline was raised from 500 to 1 000 mg/cm3. Why did the sulphate stay at the same place between 2020 and 2021? Currently, had the emission standard been reduced to 500 mg/cm3? If not, why was it taking so long to reduce it? “We are sitting with a problem, and we are exposing our communities to sulphur. We are almost six years away from the Paris Agreement.”  She asked whether the Committee could receive a report on a methane cloud at Sasol by its next meeting. She asked about the release of excess sulphur into the air and how this affected the Vaal Triangle? What was Sasol doing to stop or reduce this practice?

Ms Phillips asked why it was hard to implement boiler compliance before 2025. She asked if the boiler will be able to adhere to the 500 mg/cm3 requirement.

Mr Singh said he was worried about the long term projection of 2025 for air pollutants reductions. He said that Sasol did not highlight any health programmes that they had initiated as carbon offsets. What were they doing to ameliorate the effects of air pollution on the health of the communities? What were their strategies and targets towards a green hydrogen economy?

Mr Bryant thanked Sasol for offering a very comprehensive presentation. How was the increase in demand for liquid fuel going to affect the renewable transition goals? How would the green hydrogen projects be funded? Would it be through public and private partnership?

Mr Modise asked about the contribution of Sasol to the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. He further asked why Sasol and Eskom were only now presenting at the behest of the Committee. Why did these institutions not see it fit in the Committee’s two years in office to report on air pollution to the Committee? He highlighted that one of the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol was to account and report.

Responses

Mr Mitchelson clarified to the Committee that timelines on air quality in the presentation related to 2025. Periods that were mentioned beyond 2025 spoke to Sasol’s Greenhouse Gas reductions journey. 

Ms Groenewald said that they had 16 boilers at the Secunda site and 12 operational boilers at the Sasolburg site. She said that technology was piloted at these sites to reduce particulate matter through high frequency transformers. These transformers need to be retrofitted during periods when boilers were shut down for other maintenance purposes. The Sasol statutory maintenance plan was five years for their entire fleet. Sasol needed an implementation period to cover all their boilers before they could conclude the installation process.

Ms Groenewald said the emissions limit was currently 1000 mg/cm3 and there was no legal requirement for them to comply with the 500 mg/cm3 emission limit. She said that the Committee must acknowledge that the air quality limit was different from the greenhouse gases limit as stipulated by the Paris Agreement. She said that the 1000 mg/cm3 emissions limit was reasonable and achievable. 

Sasol was looking at co-beneficiation of 12 million tons of coal, whereby sulphur would be removed from the coal. They were considering an integrated solution where they were going to consider both the greenhouse gases and emission compliance. Sasol was looking at alternatives to reduce their dependence on coal to address both air quality and greenhouse gas challenges.

Ms Harrington said that they were on track as per a signed memorandum to develop a green hydrogen economy. Sasol would look at green financing and policy development to have a conducive and enabling environment in a global market. She said that the bounce back of oil prices put Sasol in a better position to do more capital-intensive projections relating to transitioning.  Sasol would have both public and private green hydrogen projects, because it was important to leverage existing assets and financing through global partnerships.

Ms Harrington highlighted that the Paris Agreement put obligations on countries and Sasol had been reporting greenhouse gas data for a few years to the DEFF, had reduced their emissions, established a voluntary carbon budget and were compliant with the carbon tax.

Mr Mitchelson said that Sasol made social investments, particularly in Sasolburg and Secunda. These initiatives extended to health issues, working with municipalities to repair sewage systems and fixing electrical issues. He said that the exact figures and information on Sasol’s socio-economic programmes could be provided to the Committee upon request.

Further discussion

Ms Mbatha asked if the families that had been affected by sulphur dioxide exposure in Gauteng were compensated. She asked for a report of the compensation procedures. Why was Eastleigh the most polluted area in Gauteng? What had been done to make sure that Eastleigh was like the cleanest city in the country, Cape Town? Why could Eastleigh and Cape Town not be the same?

Mr Singh suggested that Sasol should report their progress to the Committee regularly.

Mr Mitchelson said that Sasol reported regularly to the DEFF. They could discuss with the DEFF on how they could meet with the Committee regularly. He extended an invitation to the Committee to visit their sites and have a detailed discussion.

Ms Groenewald said she could not comment on the compensation procedures but in terms of the sulphur dioxide that was released in Gauteng, she could confirm that their operations had been stabilised.  She said that DEFF’s environmental directorate and local licensing authorities met in mid – February with Sasol. Sasol investigated the sulphur dioxide incident and shared the preliminary results and established that the meteorological conditions were conducive for the migration of the air mass from the Mpumalanga Highveld region to Gauteng. Sasol had significant operations to monitor household pollution in the Secunda region. She highlighted that the ambient air quality monitoring stations were accredited and had real-time monitoring capabilities through the South African Air Quality Information System.

Eskom presentation

The Eskom presenting team members were Mr Andre de Ruyter, Chief Executive Officer, Mr Bryan McCourt, Manager: Air Quality Centre of Excellence; Ms Gina Downes, Corporate Climate Specialist; and Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, Chairperson of the Eskom board.

The Committee was briefed on the current status of Eskom’s app;laictions for MES postponements and on the cost implications for Eskom and the country of full compliance with the stringent 2018 air quality regulations.

Eskom said they were progressively implementing the emission retrofit projects committed to in the 2014 MES application. Work on many was still ongoing. Power Stations generally complied with the conditions of their emission licences issued to give effect to the limits in the MES decisions received in 2015. Kendal power station experienced specific emission compliance challenges. The air quality offset programme had encountered delays but would get underway in 2021. (See attached presentation.)

Discussion

Ms Weber applauded Eskom for answering a lot of questions and their detailed presentation. She asked Eskom to start training and capacitating the community now, before the renewable energy projects kicked off. She said that she is worried about the handling of ash and asked if Eskom had identified new plants where they could put ash.

Mr Singh asked Eskom if they would be able to achieve a just transition to a low carbon emission mandate given their financial constraints due to corruption and irresponsible management. He said that the health of the communities that lived around Eskom plants should trump economics, given Eskom's promise to reduce their emissions by 57 percent in 2025. To what extent were they placing value on the impact of particulate emissions on health in surrounding communities?

Mr Bryant said that SA was still the 12th highest greenhouse gas emitter and he noted a comment by Eskom that there was a need to balance environmental with social and development issues.  He said it was important for everyone in the Committee to go and read the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and see the potential impact of climate change on the economy and society. He advised everyone that the report must serve as a guideline for Eskom, Sasol and the DoH. He stressed that the urgency of the climate change crisis should be at the forefront of all agendas. Priorities were matters relating to carbon emissions, especially with Eskom being the most significant contributor. He asked Eskom if they were able to produce R33 billion to fund renewable energy programmes.

Responses

Prof Makgoba said that climate change is the reality of our times and South Africa as one of the highest emitters needed to deal with it head-on to address health and societal impacts. He said that Eskom had estimated how much it would cost to address climate change comprehensively, but they concluded that it was better to begin in small ways to mitigate climate change effects.  He said he had no doubt about Eskom’s determination to be compliant with the Paris Agreement. He said that South Africans could support one another through the climate change committee pioneered by the President to integrally solve migration and health issues imposed by climate change.

Mr de Ruyter extended an invitation to the Portfolio Committee to attend a more comprehensive presentation on Eskom’s just energy transition and to visit their flagship site for proof of concept at the Komati power plant. The Komati plant had only one coal fired unit left and it was scheduled to be phased out by September 2022. He said that construction and manufacturing activities were currently underway at the Komati plant to prove what a just energy transition was about and to preserve job opportunities.  In response to Mr Singh, he said that the question should rather be: Was Eskom able to completely do away with coal-fired stations during a just energy transition and leave ghost town?

Mr de Ruyter said that they had read the IPCC report and they were as alarmed as everyone. He said that Eskom acknowledged that South Africa had a significant contribution of carbon emissions in Africa, and therefore it would be important to decarbonise the economy. This required access to financing and Eskom had been engaging with a number of international development and financing institutions. He said they were keen to support the decarbonisation project by making transitional loans and discounted interest rates and by partnering with the National Treasury, the DEFF, the DoE and the Department of Public Works and Enterprises.

The Managing Director of the Generation Division, Mr Philip Dukashe, said that Eskom had received approval to continue ashing at the Kendal power station for three years.

Further discussion

Ms Mbatha said that the causes of air pollution in South Africa were mining, agriculture and coal burning, and Eskom was generating electricity through coal burning. What was their plan to move from coal powered electricity generation to renewable energy such as solar, geothermal and wind? She said she still had a problem that coal was still one of the greenhouse gas emitters. What happened to the ashes, because Eskom produced a lot of ashes as part of waste management? What were they doing with that waste? Was it in line with Operation Phakisa requirements of the DEFF? Had they investigated the negative impact of load shedding on poor people? The poorest people tended to use open fires which contributed to air pollution. What was Eskom’s take on that? How best could Eskom assist the community in South Africa during load shedding?

Mr de Ruyter said that Eskom had identified several projects to decarbonise their electricity generating systems. About 8 000 MW of projects had already been identified which would cost about R180 billion to fund. Eskom was expanding their transmission group by building 8 000 km of new transmissions line, which would connect the best of solar and wind systems to the electricity markets.

Mr de Ruyter said that Eskom was in the process of expanding their ashing facilities and they were developing an ash-based polymer. The polymer would be on display at Eskom’s Komati site.  He said that Eskom had invested in projects, as demonstrated in the presentation, to reduce energy requirements with better insulation, such as a microgrid. He said that the microgrid could use a  system that was housed in a shipping container with batteries, solar panels, and all control systems to supply electricity to between 20 and 30 houses on a 24/7 basis. The cost per container was estimated to be R1.2 million. It could help address the 13 percent of unelectrified households in South Africa and reduce energy and financial poverty.

The Chairperson thanked the presenters and all those who participated in the meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.

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