This case concerns toxic air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld, which is home to a dozen coal-fired power plants, a coal-to-liquids plant and a refinery. The case was brought by two environmental organisations – groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action – represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights.
The applicants have petitioned the court to declare the unsafe levels of air pollution to be a violation of section 24a of the South African Constitution, which provides that “everyone has the right to an environment not harmful to their health or wellbeing”.
The outcome of the case is currently pending before the Pretoria High Court, and Judge Colleen Collins has reserved judgment.
The applicants’ complaints concern exposure to toxic chemicals emitted by the coal plants. This includes sulphur dioxide, heavy metals like mercury, and fine particulate matter. According to the applicants, the coal plants are responsible for the majority of these emissions, which are causing chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma and lung cancer, and which also increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, birth defects and premature deaths.
The area in question has been recognized as a hotspot of pollution in excess of permissible levels. It has been claimed that this pollution is responsible for up to 10,000 excess deaths per year. But the Government has pointed to the existence of clean air regulations, and argued that there is no scientific evidence proving the link between the air pollution and the harms allegedly suffered by any particular individual. It has also highlighted the need to realize the right to a healthy environment progressively.
Amicus curia intervention by the UNSR:
David R. Boyd, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, intervened as an amicus curiae in this case. He argued that poor and marginalised people disproportionately carry the burden of toxic air pollution. It has been reported that Boyd’s arguments include consideration for the vulnerability of children to environmental threats.
Pretoria High Court
Remedies and outcomes:
For more information from the Centre for Environmental Resources, click here.
South African ‘Deadly Air’ case, Pretoria High Court, hearings held on 17-19 May 2021.