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
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.
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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