South Africa’s government is being sued for failing to crack down on some of the world’s worst air pollution emitted by power plants operated by Eskom Holdings and refineries owned by Sasol.
The case was filed in the Pretoria High Court by groundWork, an environmental-rights organization, and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, according to a statement sent by their lawyers, the Centre for Environmental Rights.
Eskom and Sasol didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Albi Modise, a spokesman for South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, said it may comment later.
The so-called Highveld Priority Area, which includes much of Mpumalanga province and part of Gauteng, is the site of 12 coal-fired Eskom power plants, a Sasol oil refinery and coal-to-fuel plant owned by the company.
It’s also where almost all of South Africa’s coal is mined. A Greenpeace study for the third quarter of 2018 showed that Mpumalanga had the worst nitrogen dioxide emissions from power plants of any area in the world.
“The environmental justice groups are asking the court to declare the current levels of air pollution on the Highveld a violation of people’s constitutional rights, and to force government to take meaningful action,” the groups said in the statement.
The plants also emit sulfur dioxide, mercury and fine particulate matter that causes illnesses ranging from asthma to lung cancer and contributes to birth defects, strokes and heart attacks.
In 2016, the air pollution caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in the region, according to a study commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights and carried out by Andy Gray, an American atmospheric scientist.
Eskom has filed for permission to delay complying with emission limits at some of its plants. The environment ministry on May 9 said that “the desired improvements will not happen over a short period of time but rather progressively over time,” the groups said, citing a letter they received.
Sasolburg, where Sasol operates an oil refinery, frequently has worse air quality than Beijing and Jakarta, two of the world’s most polluted cities, according to AirVisual, an app that gives data on global air pollution levels.
Almost all of South Africa’s power is produced from coal and motor fuel made from coal, while natural gas accounts for about 40% of the country’s needs.
Last year South Africa’s environment minister doubled the sulfur dioxide emission limits for power stations and other coal-burning plants. That was challenged by Groundwork and the new limits will be submitted for public comment before they can be enforced.