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.

A layer of smoke hangs over the sky near Phola in Mpumalanga. The area is a hub of coal driven power stations and coal mines.
Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
People go on with their daily business as smoke and dust billow into the air at a mine located near homes in Phola, Ogies in Mpumalanga province. The mines supply coal to the 12 power stations in the area. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Elizabeth Nkabinde says she suffers from a nasal and respiratory disease due to the contaminated air in her home township of Phola near Ogies in Mpumalanga. An open cast coal mine which emits high levels of dust operates just less than 1km from her backyard.
Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Boys play in Phola township at sunset oblivious to the pending court case involving their area. The North Gauteng High Court has heard submissions that children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts caused by air pollution
Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Sharon Winnie Ngwenya has been advised by doctors that the only way her three year old son Lizokhanya can recover from the respiratory disease troubling him is to move out of Phola and the Highveld area. Lizokhanya has been diagnosed with bronchitis and struggles to breathe normally especially during the night. His unemployed parents spend R700 on his medical bills every month. He also gets a monthly dose of oxygen from a doctor to help improve his breathing. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Qinisela Khumalo started a farming project in Phola after he lost his job in 2018. He says when he started living and farming here there was no mining activity and people grazed their cattle in the area. However in 2019 the South32 coal mine began operations within walking distance from his home. He says the dust from the mine interferes with his crops which he sells to locals for a living. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Linah Sibanyoni says she has what feels like dust particles in her eyes. She has lived in Phola for over 30 years and blames the deteriorating state of her eyes on the dust levels in the township. She says the air pollution in the area has gotten worse over the years.
Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Mawethu Ntshongweni and his son Abahle stand near gate to their home in Phola. Ntshongweni’s home is near the South32 Coal Mine which he says emits high levels of dust. His two children are constantly battling respiratory ailments.
Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
A warning sign welcomes travellers to the township of Phola near Ogies in Mpumalanga. The township is surrounded by coal mines and power stations and has high levels of air pollution. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Smoke from home fires and coal mines around Phola township rise into the sky as dusk falls over the Mpumalang highveld townships. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Sharon Winnie Ngwenya’s three year old son Lizokhanya needs constant medical care and a supply of oxygen for his respiratory disease. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba
Community activist Millicent Shungube has travelled to Australia to raise the impact of coal mining operations by the Aussie mining company South32 in Phola. She says the area has an abnormally high rate of people with respiratory diseases. Shungube and her colleagues have been threatened by community members doing business with the mines
Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

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