Greenpeace Africa
Greenpeace
Here's how we change this story

Poisoned People

Chapter 1

Sonto Mabina has a haunting smile. Even with her hat pulled all the way down, you can’t miss her slightly crooked grin and the creases around her mouth – but it’s actually her eyes that do all the work.

She works at a small tuck shop that’s just a short walk from her home in an informal settlement over the train tracks outside Witbank, in Mpumalanga.

She’s lived here for 25 years, arriving well before the three coal washeries that now surround her house. Through a crumbling wall in one of her rooms, she looks out over a toxic landscape. Black earth, roaring coal trucks, acidic water pits, and somehow, a community of footpaths that twist and turn through it all.

Kids are playing outside. It’s just been raining and there are black puddles everywhere. A man rides past on a bike, a young girl, possibly his daughter, perched on the handlebars.

Sonto turns away and comes to sit on her bed where a shaft of light washes down through a gaping hole in the roof.

Sonto Mabina, or Katerina as she likes to be called, lives with her husband, Andries. Their house has no electricity or water and Katerina uses a coal stove to cook their suppers, the black plumes of smoke clouding their home.

A municipal truck brings water once a week, but most say it’s too polluted to drink. If you can afford to, you buy bottled water in this area of the country; if not, you boil it like Sonto does and you hope for the best.

“Dust is my main problem,” she says.

“Every time my child goes to the hospital it’s because of the dust. The doctors say his chest is full of it. The doctors asked me where I lived and I told them. My other child also has problems with his nose because it is always running – the dust affects him too.”

It’s an everyday problem here. Virtually every person we spoke to had a story of how coal plants and coal mines were making them sick. TB, coughing fits, red and leaking eyes, and childhood asthma – we heard it all.

Take Mrs Machete, for example. She and her family live in Masakhane, a community in the shadow of the Duva coal-fired power station.

 

Chapter 2

The World’s Dirtiest Air

After studying air quality in the Witbank area for almost two years, a team of scientists from the European Union came to an alarming conclusion. Looking at their data, they found that Witbank’s air was the world’s dirtiest – even when compared to the likes of Beijing, where people wear face masks to protect themselves from air pollution.

According to one report, the levels of some pollutants (chromium and barium) were so high that the research team's instruments had been unable to take accurate measurements.

It’s no coincidence that Mpumalanga is also home to eleven of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. A twelfth is currently being built and when completed, Kusile will be one of the world’s largest, burning 17 million tons of coal a year. It will also ramp up South Africa's carbon emissions by another 10% -- cementing our position as one of the world's highest contributors to climate change.

At the same time, about 220 million tons of coal are mined in Mpumalanga a year – that’s almost 90% of South Africa’s annual total. If we sorted those 220 million tons into one-ton blocks, each 1-meter tall, when stacked they’d reach more than half way to the moon.



The impact of coal on human health is hard to overstate. Even Eskom’s own documents acknowledge that its polluting power stations are killing people.

According to an Eskom-commissioned report, air pollution caused by its coal power stations is killing at least 20 people a year – and that toll could jump to 617 deaths, with 25 000 people hospitalised, once all its stations are operating. These would include the mega coal plants, Medupi and Kusile power stations, currently under construction in Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

On Medupi specifically, the report found that with its 200m-high stacks, the plant will spread sulphur dioxide emissions over the whole Limpopo region, including the town of Lephalale, which now has a population of around 60,000 people.

The report states that people will die from the emission of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter, which cause chest problems and cancer.

Meanwhile Greenpeace’s own research has found that air pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants is currently causing an estimated 2,200 premature deaths a year. This includes approximately 200 deaths of young children every year.

 

Chapter 3

A nasty double irony

It’s a twisted reality that while people like Katerina and Andries are so intimately affected by coal-related disease and pollution, they don’t get any electricity themselves. They breathe-in and get sick from the pollution coming from the very coal that provides electricity for our country, yet they sit in the dark, paying with their health for a service they can’t access.

David Khumu lives in the same community as Katerina, and like her he’s on the doorstep of two coal washeries – sites where coal is washed ‘clean’ before it’s used in Eskom’s coal plants, by other heavy industries, or exported.

The washing is an intensive process that uses vast amounts of water, leaving behind giant, lifeless dams poisoned with hazardous chemicals. It’s far from the the ideal place to be living – especially with two young children. But David’s lived here for almost 20 years, long before there were mines and washeries. And in those 20 years, he still hasn't got tap water – but the washeries across the path get all they need.
Greenpeace: The coal here is used to make electricity – but you don’t have electricity. The mines use a lot of water – but you don’t have water. How does that make you feel?
David Khumu: It hurts me inside and it is stressful because everything is there. They have electricity, we don’t, they have water and we don’t. Which means apartheid is still there… Maybe they can move us to a proper place where we can live like humans.
But the sad reality – the kicker to this story – is that many people can’t move away; many choose to stay put. Over the years communities have grown in between the mines and coal stacks, and many families are now directly dependent on them for work.

The tuckshop where Katerina works, with its Coca-Cola, surf washing powder, and matches, is an example of this. Despite the toxic landscape and the real human costs, an economy and a way of life has emerged here, and that’s not about to change any time soon – but there is something we can change.

 

chapter 4

The Silver Lining

Everyone has the right to:
  • An environment which is not harmful to their health or well-being,
  • Have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through reasonable legislative and other measures that:
        i Prevent pollution and ecological degradation,
        ii Promote conservation,
        iii Secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources, while promoting justifiable economic and social development.
-- Section 24, South African Constitution

South Africa has legislation to limit the amount of pollution that the likes of Eskom can pump into our air. That legislation was designed to protect human rights guaranteed by our Constitution. In terms of the legislation, Eskom’s power stations must meet a set of minimum emission standards by April 2015, and Eskom has known about this deadline since 2005.

In December last year Eskom applied for “rolling postponements” – a technical term meaning that, if successful, two thirds of Eskom's coal power stations would not have to comply with emission standards. Basically Eskom is seeking permission to continue pumping massive quantities of pollution into the air, at rates much higher than our country's emission standards allow. In the utility’s application, Eskom stated that the costs of meeting the standards were too high and that “it is not practically feasible or beneficial to South Africa to fully comply with the minimal emission standards”.

The bottom line: South Africa has laws to protect Katerina and David from coal-fired power plants – standards that would limit the amount of disease-causing sulphur dioxide and mercury that is released into the air and breathed in. But Eskom is actively trying to bypass those very laws.

And this is where you come into the story.

Eskom’s application is still under consideration. Now’s our chance to speak up and demand that Eskom be held accountable for their pollution. Communities in Mpumalanga and across the country have a constitutional right to a healthy environment. Together we can ensure that those rights are protected, that human rights are put before profit and pollution.

Take Action: Stop Eskom's Pollution Application
With thanks to GroundWork for the video