How coal is mak­ing us sick

Emalahleni res­i­dents are suf­fer­ing from ill­nesses caused by coal op­er­a­tions, but point­ing the fin­ger is prov­ing im­pos­si­ble to do

CityPress - - News - SIZWE SAMA YENDE sizwe.yende@city­press.co.za

Re­becca Le­betsa (61) had to go to hospi­tal after suf­fer­ing from a per­sis­tent cough last year. “They said I looked black in­side after ex­am­in­ing me,” she said. She was given pills and told to re­turn if her cough per­sisted. Le­betsa lives in Masakhane set­tle­ment out­side Emalahleni, with its tow­er­ing elec­tric py­lons and criss-cross­ing over­head ca­bles from the nearby Du­vha coal power sta­tion.

There is a coal mine about 100m from Le­betsa’s home. A mound of coal dust from the op­er­a­tion can be seen from her yard. Du­vha – which belches smoke day and night – lies a kilo­me­tre or so to the east.

Thou­sands of peo­ple liv­ing in the Emalahleni area suf­fer from coughs like Le­betsa’s or some form of ill­ness caused by in­hal­ing pol­luted air – but they have no le­gal re­course.

The prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion groundWork, is that it is dif­fi­cult to link the cause of an in­di­vid­ual’s sick­ness to one par­tic­u­lar com­pany.

There are about 45 coal mines and 12 coal-pow­ered elec­tric­ity sta­tions op­er­at­ing in the Mpumalanga high­veld, with most con­cen­trated in the Emalahleni mu­nic­i­pal­ity. There are 12 col­lieries in the area op­er­at­ing within a stone’s throw of res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hoods.

GroundWork’s coal cam­paign man­ager, Robby Mak­galaka, said the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s hands were tied when it came to in­sti­tut­ing law­suits against min­ing com­pa­nies and power sta­tions that emit haz­ardous chem­i­cals in the coal min­ing belts of Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.

“Since we be­gan work­ing with a group of en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyers from the Centre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Rights, we’ve dis­cussed how to take le­gal ac­tion so that th­ese com­pa­nies can recog­nise the se­ri­ous­ness of the pol­lu­tion they’re caus­ing, but there’s a tech­ni­cal prob­lem - cre­at­ing a link­age,” Mak­galaka said.

“Imag­ine you’re liv­ing in a place where there are dif­fer­ent power sta­tions. It’s hard to point to one com­pany and say: ‘You’re caus­ing pol­lu­tion that has made me sick.’ The court will re­quire a causal link be­tween the ac­tion and the re­sult. We’re afraid to try and fail in court be­cause that may cre­ate a dan­ger­ous prece­dent that will work against us in fu­ture.”

Mak­galaka said groundWork could only push com­pa­nies for le­gal com­pli­ance and min­i­mum emis­sions. How­ever, Eskom was granted a re­prieve by the depart­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal af­fairs last year from com­ply­ing with emis­sions stan­dards stip­u­lated in air qual­ity laws, in or­der to pro­cure tech­nol­ogy to re­duce emis­sions.

“The young and the old in par­tic­u­lar are most sus­cep­ti­ble to sick­nesses. They don’t even know why they’re sick be­cause it has not been ex­plained to them,” Mak­galaka said.

Ac­cord­ing to the groundWork re­port, The De­struc­tion of the High­veld: Dig­ging Coal, re­leased two weeks ago, bad air af­fects all of the body’s sys­tems. It chokes the lungs, poi­sons the blood, in­ter­rupts the heart’s beat and dis­ables the mind and ner­vous sys­tem. Con­di­tions in­clude asthma, em­phy­sema, lung cancer, heart pal­pi­ta­tions and at­tacks, as well as strokes.

“Every­one coughs. Peo­ple say it seems al­most nor­mal. But those with fam­ily else­where see that the health of their chil­dren im­proves when they leave the high­veld,” the re­port reads.

An EU team – which in­cluded ex­perts from the South African Coun­cil for Geo­science – found in 2013 that Emalahleni’s air was the most pol­luted in the world.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, air pol­lu­tion is re­spon­si­ble for one in eight deaths across the globe.

In South Africa, 2 200 deaths are caused by coal-pow­ered elec­tric­ity sta­tions per year, ac­cord­ing to re­search by groundWork and Friends of the Earth In­ter­na­tional.

Le­betsa’s neigh­bour, Rosina Baloyi (50), said she had been cough­ing a lot since mov­ing from a farm to Masakhane in 2006.

“They gave me pills. The chil­dren are al­ways cough­ing and what comes out of their noses is black,” Baloyi said. She also said that their shacks’ cor­ru­gated iron sheets were rust­ing per­haps caused by acidic rain­wa­ter.

Two years ago, the Mpumalanga gov­ern­ment promised to move Masakhane res­i­dents to a safer place, but noth­ing has hap­pened.

Other com­mu­ni­ties such as Corona­tion, on the pe­riph­ery of the Emalahleni town centre, are sit­u­ated on the plot of a dis­used mine. The land has not yet been re­ha­bil­i­tated. The dan­gers here are sink­holes, burn­ing un­der­ground coal and il­le­gal min­ing, which have killed at least five peo­ple over the past two years.

The depart­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal af­fairs spokesper­son Albi Modise said an air-qual­ity man­age­ment plan which in­volved stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing the in­dus­try, com­mu­ni­ty­based or­gan­i­sa­tions and NGOs, had been de­vel­oped to ad­dress pol­lu­tion. He said that en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment and at­mo­spheric emis­sion li­cens­ing au­tho­ri­sa­tion pro­cesses were now stricter and the im­pact of each new pro­posed air-pol­lut­ing ac­tiv­ity would be quan­ti­fied and man­aged.

“The coun­try needs to mod­ernise its in­dus­try and th­ese new fa­cil­i­ties play an im­por­tant role in the coun­try’s pur­suit of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment.

“It’s, how­ever, im­por­tant to recog­nise that the air pol­lu­tion prob­lems fac­ing Emalahleni and other parts of the pri­or­ity area re­sult from a num­ber of ac­tiv­i­ties rang­ing from in­dus­trial sources to the use of coal in dense low-in­come set­tle­ments. The com­plex na­ture of the air pol­lu­tion chal­lenges fac­ing the pri­or­ity area and Emalahleni re­quired a holis­tic ap­proach,” Modise said.

Emalahleni mayor Lindiwe Nt­shal­intshali said the mu­nic­i­pal­ity planned to re­lo­cate neigh­bour­hoods such as Masakhane, Corona­tion and Vos­man to a new set­tle­ment in Klar­inet and Siyan­qoba.

“So far, 6 000 of the 12 500 fam­i­lies we tar­geted have been re­lo­cated. We also have 9 000 stands in Siyan­qoba that are be­ing ser­viced. The prob­lem is that we face re­sis­tance from some of th­ese peo­ple be­cause they’re mi­grant labour­ers who want to live as close to mines and power sta­tions as pos­si­ble to make it eas­ier to ac­cess em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Nt­shal­intshali said.

Since 2010, more than 54% of Mpumalanga’s land sur­face has been oc­cu­pied by some form of min­ing op­er­a­tion or re­lated ap­pli­ca­tion.

Last month, Mpumalanga’s fi­nance and eco­nomic devel­op­ment depart­ment re­leased a re­port map­ping the way to­wards a green econ­omy over the next 14 years.

The plan pro­poses biomass as the pri­or­ity green en­ergy ini­tia­tive. It will also ex­plore power gen­er­a­tion from forestry and sugar cane, which both face de­cline be­cause of re­duced de­mand for pa­per and the pro­posed sugar tax.

Other pro­posed ini­tia­tives in­clude greener towns, agri­cul­ture and tourism.

The greener town en­ter­prise pro­poses waste-to-en­ergy projects, such as bio­gas gen­er­a­tion from waste­water treat­ment plants; en­ergy-ef­fi­cient build­ings with on-site power gen­er­a­tion through re­new­able en­ergy tech­nolo­gies; and new meth­ods of cook­ing and heat­ing wa­ter and homes.

TALK TO US Has your health or that of a loved one ever been af­fected by coal-min­ing op­er­a­tions or coal-based power gen­er­a­tion? SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word COAL and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

PHO­TOS: SIZWE SAMA YENDE

PER­ILOUS The com­mu­nity of Corona­tion just out­side Emalahleni is sit­u­ated near a dis­used mine

AF­FLICTED Re­becca Le­betsa (61) de­vel­oped a per­sis­tent cough when she re­lo­cated to Masakhane near Emalahleni. Le­betsa's home is a stone's throw from Du­vha Power Sta­tion and a coal mine

POI­SONED AIR Rosina Baloyi (50), says she has been cough­ing a lot since re­lo­cat­ing from a farm in 2006 to live in Masakhane

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