In a landmark case, environmental activists have launched legal action against the government over its alleged poor progress in cleaning up air pollution in the Mpumalanga highveld. GroundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), are demanding that the government clean up the air in the highly-polluted area, notes BusinessLIVE.

The Mpumalanga highveld is home to a number of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants as well as Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant, which have all contributed to large amounts of pollution in the area, the activists said.

The papers cite five respondents, including the Minister of Environmental Affairs Barbara Creecy, the national Air Quality Officer and President Cyril Ramaphosa.

In their papers, the activists argue that the government has violated the constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the area by failing to improve the deadly levels of air pollution there.

The Minister of Environmental Affairs designated the area as the 'highveld priority area' back in 2007 and in doing so acknowledged that it was an air pollution hotspot with extremely poor air quality. The activists say they have resorted to litigation because of the government’s repeated failure to enforce air quality laws.

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The case threatens to add R300bn to debt-saddled Eskom’s spending plans and also turns the spotlight on energy giant Sasol, notes a Business Day report. Sasol and Eskom have already been granted permission to delay compliance with the emission standards set by the government until 2025 due to the cost of altering their plants on time. If the case argued by the CER succeeds, the government will have to enforce compliance among large emitters on the highveld. This includes Eskom, which has 12 of its 15 coal-fired power stations in the area, as well as Sasol, which runs the world’s largest coal-to-liquids plant in Secunda.

Eskom, which is struggling with a R420bn debt burden, said the total cost of full compliance with the emission standards at all plants would top R300bn and increase electricity prices by 7%-10%.

The report says it’s unclear how long it would take for Eskom to tweak its power plants should CER win the case. The latest capital expenditure figure is nearly double the R187bn Eskom had said it would cost when it applied for permission to delay compliance with the new standards, which come into effect in 2020. A Sasol spokesperson said the figure had not been disclosed but that it would be significant.

Robyn Hugo, attorney at the CER, noted that Eskom and Sasol are not cited in the case, and that the applicants are simply seeking for the government to do its job and enforce compliance with the law. One expert estimate, as included in the court papers, found emissions caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in and around the Highveld Priority Area in 2016. ‘Living in Witbank, one of the most polluted areas in the country, has hugely affected our health and lives,’ Vusi Mabaso, chair of Vukani, said in a statement.

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