Sorry state of air pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired plants

JOHANNESBURG — With Eskom struggling to meet power demand in South Africa, there’s ever-growing scrutiny on the company. Interestingly, international experts have taken a closer look at air pollution levels from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants — and it’s a very worrying picture. For starters, there’s a real lack of disclosure from Eskom around its levels of air pollution in the first place. The researchers had to turn to PAIA (Promotion to Access of Information Act) to get data out of the company. But then when Eskom supplied data on air pollution levels, it was patchy at best. In this regard, Eskom has also fallen well behind its peers in other parts of the world, including developing countries such as India and China. – Gareth van Zyl

By Chris Yelland*

With all the emphasis currently focused on Eskom’s financial and operational sustainability and future structure, the utility’s environmental performance and sustainability is inevitably neglected, and indeed has become the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the money Gods.

In October 2018, an analysis and study of Eskom’s own air pollution monitoring reports, commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and undertaken by Dr. Ranajit (Ron) Sahu, a USA-based consultant in the field of environmental, mechanical and chemical engineering, revealed the sorry state of Eskom’s atmospheric emissions – with some 3,200 exceedances of its atmospheric emission licence limits in a 21-month period.

Robyn Hugo Ron Sahu
Dr Ron Sahu and Robyn Hugo in a more pristine setting.

The analysis was presented in the form of a report to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), provincial and municipal licensing authorities, and Eskom, and follows an earlier study of Eskom’s annual emission reports conducted by Prof. Eugene Cairncross, emeritus professor of chemical engineering at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

EE Publishers’ investigative editor Chris Yelland spoke to Dr. Sahu, Prof. Cairncross and lawyer Robyn Hugo, head of the CER’s pollution and climate change programme, to find out more about the issues.

How were you able to get the monthly emission monitoring reports from Eskom? Did Eskom cooperate in making the reports and data available? Are you receiving the reports on an ongoing basis now?

To obtain Eskom’s monthly atmospheric emission reports, we had to resort to the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to enforce our right to access the information requested.

Initially Eskom failed to provide the reports, despite us giving them numerous extensions of time to comply with the deadlines of our PAIA application. This was followed by an appeal from our side against Eskom’s refusal to provide the information. It was only after Eskom’s refusal was raised with the parliamentary portfolio committee on environmental affairs that Eskom finally provided the reports.

Today, Eskom still requires us to use this very inefficient and slow PAIA process in order to access further records, including the atmospheric emission reports, on an ongoing basis.

I notice from your analysis that there were notable omissions, inconsistencies and deficiencies in Eskom’s emission monitoring reports, and the data contained therein. Please can you elaborate on the most important of these, and how did you deal with these deficiencies?

Regarding omissions, some monthly reports were simply missing, while in some of the reports there was missing data. There was no plant operating or production data, and explanations were missing where the emissions data was unrealistically high. The reports for each power station had different formats, and there were major data inconsistencies. Some reports had both raw and final data, with many days missing one or another type. Others had no explanation of data type. Reports for some months had identical data to that of earlier months. The data was not presented in electronic format, for example in a spreadsheet, which inhibited proper analysis.

In our analysis, we dealt with the data inconsistencies, deficiencies and omissions by simply not considering any questionable, duplicated or missing data. This means that the number of violations reported in our analysis is conservative, and would have been much higher if the full and correct data had been available.

Certain monthly reports appear to be direct copies of earlier monthly reports. Does this indicate there may be some deliberate misrepresentation of results, and what does this say about the oversight of the reporting by Eskom and the environmental compliance authorities?

I really cannot speculate as to intent, and I have no idea why the graphs were identical month after month at one power station, why there were missing monthly reports from many stations, or why there was missing data within some monthly reports. However I would have expected that the people receiving the reports, both at Eskom and the regulatory authorities, would have actually reviewed them, identified the obvious data deficiencies, just as we did, and followed up with remedial actions.

The fact that we received the reports in this deficient state indicates that there was indeed no adequate review, follow up and corrective action. It would appear that those receiving the reports at Eskom, the licensing authorities and the DEA are just filing them without really doing anything, which defeats the whole purpose of this reporting in the first place.

From your broad experience as experts in the field of environmental, mechanical and chemical engineering, is the quality of the reports and data received from Eskom considered to be up to standard and acceptable for one of the major power generation utilities in the world?

I would say unequivocally no.

In the USA, for the last 20 years, every utility with a power plant more of more than 25 MW (and you know that Eskom’s power plants are several thousands of MW each) has been reporting the heat input and MW output, and particulate matter (PM), NOx and SO2 emissions, hourly. This is done electronically to a public database where anyone in the world can download the data in a user-friendly format, 45 days after the end of the previous quarter. China is reporting similar continuous emission monitoring data for several hundred large power plants.

In this day and age, with the tools readily available, Eskom is simply nowhere near its peers in other countries. So if it has aspirations to be counted amongst the better members of its class, it has a long way to go.

From your analysis, it would appear that in each of the areas of PM, SOand NOx, the number of non-compliances at particular Eskom coal-fired power stations stand out like a sore thumb. For example, the number of PM non-compliances at Matimba are 200x higher than at Kendal, while non-compliances at Matla are 150x higher than Majuba. Why are these variances so great, and what does this indicate?

Additional operating data is required, and has been requested, to help identify the causes of these variances.

It could be that some of the plants are not running as much as the others, or with lower capacity factors, or certain plant may have been off for some period of time. There may be differences in how the generation units and their pollution control equipment have been maintained. Perhaps management has not prioritised maintenance, nor focused on the mission of minimising pollution, while pushing production.

Without having this production and operating data, it is hard to pinpoint the differences that we see. To us, a review by a regulator should have prompted these types of questions to get answers from Eskom. At the very least, operating profiles would help resolve some of these variances.

Has Eskom and the DEA been given adequate opportunity to review and respond to your analysis and findings, and if so, what has been their response?

We reported our analysis and findings to the DEA, to the provincial and municipal licensing authorities and to Eskom at the end of October 2018. We had an initial response from the DG of the DEA, who said “let’s meet, compare notes and reflect on the trends”. But since then, nothing, despite repeated meeting requests from our side, and despite many years of complaints against Eskom, including the submission of an earlier report that we submitted in October 2017.

We also repeatedly reported the situation to the parliamentary portfolio committees on environmental affairs and health. But to date no meaningful action has been taken against Eskom in relation to its non-compliances with its air emission licences.

Eskom does say it has some issues with the 2015 SO2 limit imposed at Medupi and Matimba, because of the high sulphur content of the coal. Yet despite all the damning evidence in their own reports, in public, Eskom consistently maintains that it complies fully with its emission licences, and we have had no specific response at all from Eskom to this particular analysis.

How stringent are South Africa’s minimum emission standards, particularly in relation to those of other developing countries? Would Eskom’s coal-fired power stations be able to operate legally in any other countries of the world?

South Africa’s minimum emission standards are not stringent, and this is a point we make in our study. Based on the exceedances that Eskom reports, as currently designed and with the pollution control equipment they currently have, Eskom’s power plants would have a tough time meeting the air pollution standards in almost all other jurisdictions. This includes not just developed countries, but also developing countries.

Take India for example. India is retrofitting flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) scrubbers on many of its coal-fired power plants. China is another example. So yes, without adding more air pollution control equipment, Eskom’s coal-fired power stations could not meet the current Indian or Chinese standards. In fact, South Africa’s minimum emission standards are many times weaker than those of China, India and Indonesia. So it is not as though we are trying to hold Eskom to some impossibly difficult measure.

From their failure to respond to your analyses, and the difficulties experienced in obtaining the Eskom reports and data in the first place, do you feel Eskom and the DEA are being adequately open and transparent about the thousands of emission non-compliances by Eskom?

Clearly not. Eskom and the DEA are being the very opposite of open and transparent. We are talking here about violations of the constitutional rights to a healthy environment. Research shows that the burning of coal at Eskom’s power stations is responsible for some 2200 premature deaths every year and thousands of cases of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses, which cost the state and therefore the taxpayer about R33-billion each year.

We know that air pollution from Eskom has significant health impacts, and to date we have had no response regarding these significant exceedances of its emission limits, and nothing is being done to address these really dire violations of human rights. So definitely, Eskom and the DEA are not being open and transparent.

So what should the DEA and the relevant emission compliance authorities be doing about the thousands of flagrant breaches of the applicable daily emission limits detailed in Eskom’s own reports? How serious are these offences?

The law governing our minimum emission standards outlines what reporting Eskom should be doing; including that Eskom should report on its root-cause analyses, and should provide details of what will be done to avoid similar exceedances and violations of licence conditions in future.

By setting out Eskom’s responsibilities, the expectation would be that the regulatory authorities should at least look at the reports, follow-up on obvious omissions, discrepancies or inconsistencies to get explanations, and compare them to previous reports to establish trends.

It the above were being done, and the root-causes identified and actioned, then over the 21-month period analysed there should have been a decrease in certain types of exceedances. The whole point of emissions reporting is not to bury the reports, but to act on them. However we can see no evidence of that.

Regarding the seriousness of the violations, for example, just on PM emissions, Grootvlei’s exceedance were 15x the emission limit at times, Kriel’s were 6x the limit, and Duvha and Lethabo 5x the limit. We are not talking about small exceedances here, about serious and often persistent violations.

Quite apart from having a reporting process to understand when and why there are non-compliances, the DEA should be taking enforcement action against Eskom. These violations are criminal offences under the Air Quality Act. Upon conviction, Eskom and its directors could be liable for fines of R5-million and/or 5-year imprisonment per offence.

An atmospheric emission licence does allows some leniency in relation to start-up, shut-down and so-called “upset” conditions. But of course the vast majority of exceedances are not related to start up, shut down or upset conditions, but qualify as offences for which the above penalties are applicable.

What should Eskom be doing about this sorry state of affairs, and can Eskom’s response be considered adequate in any way?

About 18 months prior to this latest study, Prof. Cairncross did an earlier study which we presented to both Eskom and the regulatory authorities. Because of the poor quality of data we received from Eskom, we could only infer that seven out of twelve of Eskom’s power stations were probably exceeding their limits.

This second analysis, which been done with more detailed information from daily emission data in the monthly reports received as a result of our PAIA request, should therefore come as no surprise to Eskom or authorities.

It is clear that Eskom needs to start taking the reports from its own power stations seriously. It should be reviewing the reports, not just from a quality standpoint to make sure the data are complete and accurate, but also to take decisions and remedial action. Eskom needs to do the required root-cause analyses, provide explanations and fix the problems that they are currently simply denying. Somehow the messages from within its incomplete and inconsistent data and reports are just not getting through.

The decommissioning of coal-fired power plants that will clearly never comply with the already weak minimum emission standards in South Africa should be accelerated in a way that allows a just transition that protects coal workers, their families and the surrounding communities.

Whatever happens in a future unbundled and restructured Eskom, these non-compliances cannot be allowed to continue at the expense of human health and environmental rights. The current crisis at Eskom provides a unique opportunity for a new electricity supply industry, one that generates power at least-cost and in a way that doesn’t poison our people and communities.

What can civil society do about this, and are any strong legal or other actions actually happening or being contemplated?

In the first instance, we look to regulators to protect South Africans from industrial pollution. This is their constitutional obligation and their statutory mandate. Air pollution is the world’s largest environmental health risk, and the air quality in various parts of South Africa, including the Highveld Priority Area, where twelve of Eskom fifteen coal-fired power stations are located, is extremely poor.

Court applications are currently being drafted to address various air quality governance failures. Amongst the relief we seek will be a declaration that the air quality in the affected areas breaches peoples’ Section 24 constitutional rights. We will also be seeking an order to set aside the doubling of the SO2 minimum emission standards by the DEA without following the legally-prescribed due process. Civil society is already doing the work of the regulators in analysing Eskom’s emission reports. If the regulators were doing their job and following up with even a minimum of due diligence, these types of independent analyses would not be necessary.

These flagrant breaches of the country’s air quality laws are completely unacceptable. If no action is taken against Eskom, we may have no option but to consider direct legal action to deal with this criminal non-compliance.

Note: See here for Eskom’s full response to the analysis by Dr. Ron Sahu and the above questions.

  • Chris Yelland, investigative editor, EE Publishers. 
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