Air Quality Act Implementation: Environmental Department Review


20 February 2008
Chairperson: Mr D Maluleke (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism’s Unit on Environmental Quality and Protection presented a report on air quality management and the implementation of the Air Quality Act.

The Presenter looked at the Vaal Triangle Air-shed and identified six hotspots where pollution was likely to affect residents’ well being. The focus was on key challenges that also related to capacity building. The Air Quality Act was in line with modern international trends, and was a regulatory system. Mechanisms were being put in place to ensure effectiveness. Licensing sections of the AQA were not yet in effect. Many of the challenges when the Act was passed were of a political nature. Other challenges included the labour division amongst staff, systems and tools for air quality management, skills, staff motivation, alignment and relationships between the Department and other institutions. The Department was reviewing the current licenses of seventy industries that were responsible for 80% of the emissions in the country.

Members discussed issues such as joint ventures with other departments to help the pollution situation, taking into account the future impact of pollution when performing an Environmental Impact Assessment, the communities’ dissatisfaction with the air quality situation, dealing with medical waste appropriately, the Department’s capacity and ability to play an advisory role to small companies, Eskom’s ash emissions and the legal recourse available to society.

Meeting report


Air Quality Management report by Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT)
Mr Peter Lukey, Chief Director: Air Quality Management and Climate Change, Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, presented the report to the Committee. He informed Members that the area of Air Quality Management was still new but that there had been new developments over the last few years.

Mr Lukey discussed Air Quality (AQ) problem areas in South Africa. The Vaal Triangle area was the first to be named an AQ priority area in terms of the new Air Quality Act (the Act). The Vaal Triangle area encompassed the entire area from Soweto to the north of the Free State. It included some of the most obvious problem areas such as Sasolburg, Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging. “Hotspots” were identified where the well being of the residents living in or around these areas could be affected.

The first identified hotspot to be discussed was Sasolburg. The majority of the emissions were from the petrochemical processes in the area; but the amount of the emission that people were breathing in was minimal. The pollution being inhaled was mostly from the mines in the area. This was because emissions from petrochemical processes were diluted while pollution from mines was in the form of dust that was being blown into people’s homes. 

The second hotspot was the area just south of Vereeniging near the Lethabo Power Station. Most of the emissions came from power generation but the impact on people was very limited. The pollution that most affected the air came from the iron and steel industry, mining, phosphate fertiliser processes and other smaller industries.

Hotspot 3 was identified as Vanderbijlpark. Most of the emissions came from the iron and steel processes. The emissions that were breathed in came from the iron and steel industry as well as other smaller industries.

Hotspot 4 was the residential developments of Vereeniging and Meyerton. This area was also known as the “mixed industry hotspot”. The iron and steel industry contributed to the pollution but the major contributor was identified as vehicles. This was because goods were transported through the area by trucks and not by rail. Smaller industries also added to the pollution.

The fifth hotspot was Orange Farm, where most of the emissions came from domestic fuel burning, with contributions from vehicles. This was a typical residential situation where people burned coal for fuel. This was an air quality challenge, as people burned cheap coal because they did not have any other choice. The use of legislation or prosecution to control this behaviour would be difficult because it would mean that poverty would be criminalised. Government would have to step in and intervene.

Soweto was identified as the sixth hotspot. This area was similar to hotspot 5 but with higher vehicle emissions. Hotspots had been identified, but South Africa in general did not have a major pollution problem.

Mr Lukey discussed the Air Quality Act (AQA or the Act). He informed Members that the Act was regulatory but was not a means to an end. Mechanisms were to be put in place to ensure that the implementation of the Act was effective. Licensing sections of the AQA were not yet in effect. The Act, however, was in line with modern international trends.

One of the challenges encountered when the Act was passed was of a political nature. There was a fallacy that air control limited industrial development. Poor air quality actually limited sustainable industrial development. Also, fossil fuel burning cost the nation R4 billion a year. An investment in air quality management was an investment in public health.

Other challenges that were encountered included:
a) Structure, which referred to the division of labour amongst staff and lines of command and communication
b) Systems, which referred to the tools for air quality management
c) Skills, which was the ability of the staff to apply the required systems
d) Incentives, which referred to collective and individual staff motivations
e) Strategy, which was the attempted alignment of all the challenges in pursuance of objectives with given resources, and
f) Interrelationships, which referred to the extent to which, and how, the Department related to the other parts of the air quality management systems in the country

All the challenges also related to issues of capacity building.

Key projects were the South African Air Quality Information System (SAAQIS) and the National Monitoring Network. SAAQIS should be the first place to go to for information about air quality. All the legislation, gazettes and information about air quality projects were published at SAAQIS.

The Department was reviewing the registration certificate. This meant a transition from the old Act to the new Act. The Departments, with Provinces and Municipalities, were in the process of reviewing the current licenses of seventy industries that were responsible for 80% of the emissions in the country. The industries included petrochemical factories, steel and industry factories, aluminium smelters, pulp and paper factories, as well as coalmines and power stations. At the moment, reviews were being finalised and registration certificates were being tightened from a legislative point of view.

The Chairperson wondered why nobody thought of planting trees in new township developments. He asked if the Director had thought to have joint discussions with the Departments of Housing, and Water Affairs and Forestry, as well as various local authorities, to find a strategy of including the planting of trees with the construction of houses.

Mr Lukey addressed housing developments. He stated that there were quality aspects that needed to be looked at that were of no cost to people. The first was the orientation of houses. The usual situation was that houses were built randomly and faced the road. This method was incorrect, as South African houses should be north-facing with a slight overhang so that they were cool in summer and warm in winter. This would have a huge impact on the amount of energy needed. Providing trees was indeed one of the most efficient and cost effective ways of saving energy. These low cost interventions also improved the quality of life. Mr Lukey hoped that the air pollution interventions would create links between various departments. It was agreed that DEAT would run the intervention project and the Committee would be presented with the reports.

Ms J Chalmers (ANC) asked to what degree the future impact of pollution was taken into account when an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was done.

Mr Lukey noted that all EIA’s were done by the National Department. A technical task team was created to perform the assessments. This meant that the team assessed all the AQ components. Mr Lukey warned the Committee that a power station was to be built in Botswana, on the border between the country and South Africa. With the prevailing wind conditions, South Africa would become the victims of pollution and the air quality would be affected. However, there was difficulty that one could not predict the future, but would have to look at the information on hand. Therefore, the Ambient Air Quality approach was the most suitable method for assessments because entities were not licensed based on emissions, but on the elements that people were breathing.

Ms Chalmers asked if the Department was able to compete with the private sector in order to retain the personnel currently working for the Department.

Mr Lukey noted that staff retention was important to the Department, as the DEAT was seen as the employer of choice for anybody entering into the air quality field. More people were constantly being trained to take the places of those who left their posts.

Ms Chalmers noted that other issues of concern were the cement industry and the disposal of medical waste through incineration.

Mr Lukey noted that the cement industry was not on the list of the top fifty polluters. The list was drawn up based on a matrix if emissions. If the scientific-based list were extended, then the cement industry would be the first one on it.

Mr Lukey noted that a policy development process was being put in place to deal with the issue of medical waste and incineration. However, incineration was probably the most appropriate way to deal with waste.

Ms Chalmers noted that the cement industry might not have been on the list because there were so few cement factories. She added, however, that there was a lot of pollution wherever a cement factory was to be found.

Mr Lukey acknowledged that this was a problem.

Mr I Cachalia (ANC) asked about global warming. The aim of the integrated plan was to use non-fossil fuel forms of energy generation. He asked what the Department was going to do to streamline the requirements of the international conventions.

Mr Lukey noted that South Africa was performing well in respect to international negotiations with climate change. The Department mapped scenarios of carbon emissions in the long term for South Africa and found ways from a scientific point of view of maintaining temperatures.

Mr Cachalia wanted to know what the progress was on the mercury clean-up programme. He also requested a report on progress in training in the environmental and management sectors.

Mr Lukey answered that the waste issue was not in the Department’s jurisdiction but that he would enquire as to what the current status was and inform the Committee.

Mr A Mokoena (ANC) stated that it seemed that there was a question of governance and the ability of the Government to deliver projects. He commented that he approved of the AQ Forum and wanted to know if the forum was utilised during meetings and other discussions to create convergence.

Ms C Zikalala (IFP) was worried that very little was being done about the issues that were discussed. Plans were made but one could not see the improvements in the communities. It seemed that the Vaal Triangle, Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga were the most affected areas. The Committee visited a factory in Sasolburg and noted how the upset the residents were, as not much was done about the pollution problem.

The Chairperson stated that Botswana was part of SADEC and asked if the Department had thought of having a SADEC forum to deal with AQ control in the SADEC community.

Mr Lukey replied that there was a forum but that it was of an academic nature. The Department had not met with the Botswana Government at all, as politically it was a challenge. It would be difficult to talk to Botswana officials about the pollution issue when South Africa was the main exporter of pollution in Africa for years. Mr Lukey added that the World Bank would fund the power station in Botswana and it was likely that they would face even stricter emissions standards.  

Mr Lukey said that with regard to the aspect of measurable impact touched on in a couple of questions, the Committee could check the Department’s improvement from previous years. Communities, municipalities and management would tell the Committee different stories but Members were advised to base their knowledge on comparisons made from graphs that would show the improvements. Mr Lukey would present the Committee with a report that indicated the Department’s performance.

He added that industrial efficiency was a major problem. It was easy to make a financial decision to change methods of productivity to control emissions but industries did not want to change a system that was working for them. Therefore, new emissions standards were being given as a regulatory approach for transition purposes.

The National Department was developing a uniform AQ model where information about emissions in areas would be recorded as well as information from the South African Weather Service (SAWS). This would enable the Department to predict future pollution

Ms Chalmers noted that there was a great amount of expertise within the Department but she wondered if they had the capacity to play an advisory role to new emerging companies that were starting new ventures.

Mr Lukey stated that the Department did not currently have the standing capacity to play an advisory role to companies. However, there were three specialist advisor posts that were on limited contracts, because DEAT wanted to be able to recycle the posts and make the positions available to other people as well. The first advisory position entailed AQ planning and modelling, the second entailed risk management with epidemiology and toxicology, and the third advisory position was for an industrial processing engineer. The strategic advantage of these positions was that they provided the Department with support when discussions were held with various industries.

Ms Chalmers noted that Eskom produced a large amount of ash and even though it was damped down with water, ash still made its way into the air. She asked how this could be controlled and if the Department could play a role in reducing pollution as well as monitoring it, and if they could be proactive as well as reactive.

Mr Lukey noted that the ash that Eskom produced was an exceptionally fine grain that was easily dispersed by air. Huge amounts of water were needed to keep the ash moist and bed it down. The waste from the ash was now being turned in to bricks as it contained dust as well as heavy metals like mercury and lead. However, waste management continued to be a major challenge.

The Chairperson asked Mr Lukey about the legal recourse that communities had available to them to hold the Government and various companies accountable for AQ issues.

Mr Lukey told the Committee that it was possible to take action against the Government and companies because the law allowed for it, but it was not easy. It was very difficult to be successful in court when it came to AQ issues because the cases were hard to prove and costs were high. It was also difficult to prove that a certain emission from a certain company caused the damage. Therefore it was easier to work with licenses, as it allowed the Department to monitor what the company was or was not doing. Also, the current Government could not be held responsible for damages caused by a factory that was set up before the ruling party came in to power.

The meeting was adjourned.


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