South Africa: Anglo Coal Set to Poison the Waterberg

analysis

An unholy alliance has come together on a Limpopo farm within the Waterberg District, about 60km from the town of Lephalale and a short drive from the border with Botswana.

Anglo American Thermal Coal and India's Vedanta Zinc International have combined to produce a climate-killing and water-guzzling industrial machine: Anglo will open a new coal mine and Vedanta will use that mine's dirtiest coal - discards unfit even for Eskom's power stations - to produce 600MW of electricity.

On the 6th of August 2013, Earthlife Africa Jhb and its partners will march on Anglo American's headquarters in Johannesburg calling on Anglo to abandon this mine and power station.

The proposition we will put to Anglo and Vedanta has two simple components: Firstly, do not build this coal-fired power station. Not building the power station will save lives, prevent serious illnesses, and give the world a chance to reduce carbon emissions and prevent runaway climate change.

Secondly, use Anglo's current profits to invest in locally manufactured solar and wind technologies. Anglo can and should contribute to South Africa's development, but it should do so in a clean and safe manner. The days of Anglo American making profit at the expense of the lives and health of South Africans and the environment should be over.

If granted environmental approval by the Department of Environmental Affairs, this mine and power station complex will produce - on a conservative estimate - about 4.74 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 a year, with a high estimate of 9.7Mt of CO2 a year. Every day, the power station will create 6,800 tonnes of toxic ash containing the radioactive elements uranium and thorium.

The plant will pollute the air with as of yet unknown quantities of particulate matter, mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, nitrous oxides and sulphur oxides. It will consume 68,500 litres of water an hour, and 30 tonnes of limestone a day.

This mine and power station complex will compromise the health of residents within the Waterberg District and across the border into Botswana. All of the pollutants listed above have been linked to premature deaths, asthma and other respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, and neurological aliments.

Pregnant women are at particular risk from the mercury this complex will spew out into the atmosphere and water system: if contaminated in the womb, children face increased chances of lower intelligence, memory and sensory problems, and delayed neuro-development.

All of this in a formerly pristine area of South Africa known for its beauty, quality agricultural products, wildlife and tourism. The Waterberg is already home to the Matimba and Medupi coal-fired power stations, which are having a negative impact on its water, natural and infrastructure resources.

Anglo could invest in clean energy generation in the area, create jobs and preserve the environment, but has chosen to poison people and the land instead. Simply put, Anglo American is helping to turn the Waterberg into Witbank, which has some of the worst air quality in world.

The carbon emissions from this power station will only further exacerbate South Africa's carbon emission problems. As part of its global commitments and its Constitutional requirement to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all citizens (and not just those drinking champagne at the Chamber of Mines) the government has put an upper, worst-case limit on carbon emissions of 618Mt of CO2 equivalent (CO2-eq) and put a cap on the electricity sector of 275Mt of CO2-eq.

Government's ideal peak emissions in 2025 would stand at 398Mt CO2-eq. While these emissions targets are not in line with keeping global temperatures to below two degrees Celsius warming, they do represent recognition of the problem and are official policy.

Our 2010 emissions stood at 547Mt of CO2-eq, and Eskom produced 231.9Mt of CO2 last year. The Medupi and Kusile power stations alone will likely add about 70Mt of CO2-eq a year when they come on line. And other sectors of the economy such as construction and transport will add to the load. There is simply no more room in South Africa's carbon budget for any new coal-fired power stations.

Anglo American is aware of these figures, and is essentially ignoring both South Africa and the world's challenge to reduce carbon emissions. Climate change is the number one threat to humanity, and we are currently on course for about five degrees of warming by the end of this century.

This would mean major food shortages, an economic meltdown, loss of coastal areas, spreading of diseases such as malaria, mass extinction of species, and deepening poverty and misery in South Africa and the continent. Unless we cut emissions, humanity will endure an unprecedented catastrophe that will last over a thousand years.

In this context, it is an unpardonable sin for one of the wealthiest corporations on the planet - Anglo American made a net profit of R108 billion in 2011 and holds assets of over R730 billion - to contribute to the problem through building yet another coal-fired power station.

If there is anyone in South Africa who has the money and resources to transition away from carbon-intensive activities and towards low-carbon and socially just investments, it is Anglo American. Yet, instead of contributing to a better South Africa, Anglo is seeking short-term profits.

The plan for the mine and power station is for 250MW of its power to supply Anglo and Vedanta operations, the other 350MW would be sold to the grid. South African citizens would hand an estimated R2.5 billion in electricity sales over to Vedanta and Anglo.

We would make them even richer but would be stuck with the health and climate costs. Using figures developed from the international Stern review, the cost of the carbon emissions (R300 a tonne of CO2-eq) from the power station would be around R1.4 trillion.

We would pay Anglo and Vedanta for our own impoverishment, and that is worth protesting about.

Taylor is the Project Coordinator of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg.

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