New Air Quality Act will deal with major polluters

Three areas under focus…

emissionsIn terms of who is in trouble in terms of the newly proposed Air Quality Act amendments, the chief director, air quality management at the department of environmental affairs (DEA), told parliamentarians that there were three priority areas that had been identified in South Africa where ambient standards are being exceeded.

These are the Vaal Triangle airshed, which could be said to be Orange Farm south to Sasolburg; the Highveld area, roughly Witbank south to Ermelo and back up to Delmas; and the Waterberg-Bonjala area which is essentially Brits through to Limpopo. The minister believes that that these areas, said Dr Mduli, should be “declared” as such in terms of the law, as soon as possible.   In the case of the Waterberg-Bonjala area, it was more a case of what was being planned for the area, than what existed at the moment, she said.

de Lange gets tough

Adv. de Lange, chair of the water and environmental portfolio committee, who were being briefed on current developments under the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, asked why Durban South was not a priority area in terms of DEA’s estimations.   Dr Mduli replied that recent improvements in ambient air quality in that area had shown that it need not be rated as such.

The main sources of pollution in the three priority areas were emissions from industrial complexes; the domestic burning of dirty fuels in highly populated areas; mining operations; and vehicle emissions, she said.

Hotspots named

She named the industrial “hotspots” as the Vaal Triangle area, this being Sasolburg, Vereeninging, Vanderbijlpark, Meyerton, Orange Farm and Soweto. Also, the Highveld, which mainly suffered from SO2 (sulphur dioxide) problems, this being the generalised Ekurhuleni area, Delmas, the eMalaheni area and Witbank, the Govan Mbeki area and Secunda, the Steve Tshwete area and Middeburg, the Msukaliqwa area and Ermelo and the Lekwa area which took in Standerton.

PM10 problems (heavy dust particles) existed in Ekurhuleni, Witbank, Secunda and Ermelo, she told parliamentarians, but in general terms the department was establishing a national air quality indicator where, by using the 45 monitoring stations that existed in South Africa, there was a possibility of establishing a “constant” that could be evaluated against comparison.

Getting together

Dr. Mduli said that it was not just a question of penalising pollutants that, in many cases, were providing valuable jobs.  It was more a case of working with the industries involved to provide answers. An example, she said, was Engen in Durban South, where a compromise had been found between saving jobs and achieving an outcome which resulted in better ambient air quality.

The issue of offsets to business as incentives, either as tax or other credits, was raised by parliamentarians as a benefit for results achieved with improved ambient air qualities for their “airsheds” but Dr Mduli said whilst these might apply to industry where there were routes to follow, the answer had yet to be found how to apply incentives to communities where traditional fuels producing carbon emissions in highly densely populated areas were the problem.

Community answers

Insofar as industry incentives were concerned, she felt that offsets were not so much a problem and which no doubt were to be considered but in the case of communities, where just individuals were concerned, a lot of the problems would be solved with simple electrification being applied as the answer, as distinct from coal or wood burning. As a result of all this, DEA monitoring stations tended to be located in highly populated areas in order to measure results, rather than emissions.

Dr. Mduli said that for this reason, so DEA could understand better the effects on communities, monitoring was on results, not on emissions, as mostly the bigger particles were in fact the biggest contributor to poor health amongst communities. “Command and control systems by regulation as conducted with industry cannot be used here”, she said and “community persuasive systems had to be envisaged”, she added.

Added to this was the winter atmospheric inversion problem on the Highveld, which tended to trap bigger particles on a long-term basis and contributed to health problems.

Eskom again in the picture

It was noted by Dr Mduli, in displaying graphs, that SO2 played a large part in the national industrial emissions problem and Eskom were the certainly the greatest polluter in this regard, she said. But offsets would not help here, she said as Eskom had other financial priorities, although electrification of townships and all rural areas were amongst Eskom targets to fight the problem of pollution.

In describing the new regulations to follow from the Air Quality Act amendments, she said a number of events would follow in the next few months. Firstly, section 21 of the Act required a list of activities to be published and which had been attended to, the control of which would define the associated regulations necessary to finalise environmental emission standards as an answer to the climate response issue.

The rest of the proposals…

Secondly, section 22 and onwards would include a declaration of control of processes and which was constantly under revision; for example, even the control of declaring mobile asphalt plants might be considered, she said.

Section 29 and following sections involved the definition of greenhouse gasses as pollutants as defined internationally and requirements that followed from global agreements. Then followed clauses which would allow regulations on a “hands on” basis, bringing controls and regulations down to a localised basis, such as sugar cane burning in KwaZulu Natal.

Get a big fish

Adv. de Lange concluded that DEA, in his summing up of the new amendments, had “done well” and he noted “his surprise” at the advanced stage of air quality controls in the country and successes to date. He stated, however, “that what was needed now was a legal success in a major test case against a large industry polluter to show that DEA meant business”.

It was noted in the presentations that Cape Town in general had dropped as far as excessive quality emissions were concerned but that Goodwood, as a residential area had suffered particularly insofar as SO2 was concerned and this had to be investigated. Other issues that concerned DEA on air quality emissions was that mercury readings in emissions were gaining ground, mainly in coal producing areas.

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