Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane has backed down on her controversial move to double the amount of harmful sulphur dioxide that industry can pump into the air - but only temporarily.
She announced on Thursday that she had withdrawn an earlier provision, gazetted in October, that allowed coal-fired power stations, refineries and other industries with coal boilers to double the amount of sulphur dioxide (SO2) they were allowed to emit.
Mokonyane, who was facing a legal challenge in the Pretoria High Court from the environmental justice organisation, groundWork, over the matter, said in a statement she had withdrawn the provision "due to objections and complaints received" about her inadequate public consultation on doubling of this minimum emission standard.
groundWork had filed papers in the Pretoria High Court against Mokonyane and President Cyril Ramaphosa, saying the government had broken the law by not publishing its intention to change the emission standards, in order to allow the public to comment on the proposed change.
Mokoyane is now going the correct legal route. She still intends to double the amount of SO2 pollution allowed, but this time she has published her intention to do so, and given the public 30 days to comment on the proposal. Under the proposal, industries will be allowed to emit up to 1000mg of SO2 per normal cubic metre, instead of only 500mg.
These minimum emission standards will come into force in April 2020. Mokonyane argues that this is still a significant reduction from the current emission standard for SO2 of 3500mg.
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"This would still lead to improvements in ambient air quality as the total SO2 emissions would be reduced by at least 50%," Mokonyane said in a statement. The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which represents groundWork in the legal challenge against Mokonyane, regards Mokonyane's announcement as a victory.
"Following groundWork's litigation instituted last month to set aside government's unlawful plan to double the amount of the harmful pollutant SO2 that polluters are allowed to emit, the Environment Minister withdrew this provision," the organisation said on Thursday. "In an attempt to remedy this failure, the Minister has now published a second notice, in which she invites public comment on the same proposed amendment to emission standards, which would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously-allowed SO2 pollution from April 2020."
Bobby Peek, director of groundWork, said on Thursday, "Basically the government has pulled back on the administrative process, and they have started again, doing it the way they should have done in the first place - allowing public input." Having not complied with the law initially, Mokonyane had forced groundWork to go to court, he said.
"So they've just wasted our money and wasted taxpayers' money on litigation."
Peek said while the Pretoria High Court action was against unlawful procedure, groundWork's next move would be to contest the substantive issue about doubling the amount of SO2 pollution allowed.
"We will contest it, because this is socially unjust and rolling back on standards. Industries continue to place profit over people, disregarding the impacts their pollution has on communities' health and wellbeing," Peek said.
Robyn Hugo, an attorney at CER, said two of the biggest SO2 emitters, Sasol and Eskom, had already postponed complying with the new emission standards until April 2025. The main reason industries are reluctant to comply with the new emission standards is the cost involved in altering their plants to enable a greater amount of SO2 to be removed from their emissions.
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Eskom has argued against the benefit of "retro-fitting" its power stations with new equipment, saying the costs outweighed the benefits, particularly for the old power stations that were only a few years away from being decommissioned. Hugo said studies commissioned by NGOs had shown that Eskom had inflated the cost of complying with the new emission standards by five times.
"We're not the only country in the world to have these emission standards - which are weak compared even to other developing countries. The standards are not impossible, so we don't see why our industries must get special treatment," Hugo said. CER said SO2 caused "significant harm" to the natural environment and to people, particularly to the respiratory system and to lung functioning.
It said studies had linked SO2 to low birth weights and an increased risk for gestational diabetes mellitus, stillbirths and pre-term births. When SO2 combines with water it forms sulphuric acid - known as "acid rain" - which can damage or kill plants, animals, particularly aquatic life. SO2 can move across borders and pollution emitted in one country can cause acid rain in another. Germany's Black Forest was damaged by acid rain, as were some lakes in the US.
In 1991 the US authorities reported that 5% of its lakes in New England were acidic, and 6% were unsuitable for the survival of many species of fish.