The Groundwork Trust and the Vukani Environmental Justice Alliance Movement in Action have brought court action to compel the Minister of Environmental Affairs to enforce and implement the Highveld Priority Area Air Quality Management Plan.
Government declared the Highveld Priority Area (HPA) in November 2007 because of its “poor air quality, and elevated concentrations of criteria pollutants occur due to the concentration of industrial and non-industrial sources.”
The priority area covers 31 106 km2, including parts of Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces, with a single metropolitan municipality, three district municipalities, and nine local municipalities.
The applicants in the case want the court to “declare that the poor air quality in the Highveld Priority Area is in breach of residents’ section 24(a) right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being.”
The respondents in the matter are the minister of environmental affairs, the National Air Quality Officer, the President of the Republic of South Africa and the MECs for agriculture, rural development, land and environmental affairs in Mpumalanga and Gauteng.
In their submission the applicants told the court that “the poor air quality has significant and direct impacts on human health and well-being, causing premature deaths and chronic respiratory and other illnesses. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts caused by air pollution.”
The Centre for Environmental Rights has estimated that 2,239 annual deaths, together with 9,500 cases of bronchitis among children aged six to 12 could be attributable to coal-related air pollution in South Africa. Judgment in the matter heard in the North Gauteng High Court on 17 and 18 May is reserved.
Phola, near the town of Ogies on the Mpumalanga Highveld is an area notorious for high levels of air pollution. The township is surrounded by coal mines and coal fired power stations, placing it in the literal eye of the air pollution storm.
A choking smell from emissions of smoke, chemicals and dust from the mines and power stations hangs over the township air daily.
While the courts deliberate on the matter communities like Phola continue to live in the shadow of death. This is their story in pictures.