The giant Sasol plant in Secunda is believed to be the source of a stench of sulphur dioxide that has engulfed Gauteng and Mpumalanga since the weekend.
On Tuesday, Sasol issued a statement saying all the air-quality stations near it showed nothing was wrong. It made it clear that its operations were not to blame. The government was silent. On Wednesday, the department of environment, forestry and fisheries said it would be visiting the petrochemical plant, together with officials from the Gert Sibande municipality.
Department spokesperson Albi Modise said: “While there are many sources in the area that could be contributing to these elevated levels, the district municipality’s air quality officer has been informed that the Sasol Secunda operation is experiencing stressed conditions, as the facility started ramping up operations.”
Modise’s statement said that “the stench is likely a combination of elevated levels of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide”.
He added that authorities would ask Sasol — the largest private-sector polluter in South Africa — to “put mitigation measures in place, should they be found to be the source of the smell”.
“Our biggest concern is the effect polluted air has on people’s lives,” Modise noted.
Sasol claims innocence
In its statement, Sasol said its Secunda plant has been stable, with no incidents that could have resulted in increased sulphur emissions. It has a long history of disputes, and threats of legal action when it comes to the environment department enforcing air-quality legislation.
The company added: “Sasol is committed to improving air quality in the areas within which we operate and has initiated an investigation to assist in identifying the area of origin of the sulphur odour experienced in the Highveld region. To this end, we are gathering and assessing data on atmospheric conditions in the region over the last few days.”
Although the statement discusses sulphur dioxide, it does not address the hydrogen sulphide (H₂S) that the environment department also pointed to.
Hydrogen sulphide is a deadly danger to people’s lives. Exposure to high concentrations of this toxic gas, which is found in many work environments, can cause nausea and severe headaches. Severe symptoms can include conjunctivitis, loss of smell, collapse and rapid unconsciousness. People working or living near oil refineries and mines are at the highest risk of contamination from H₂S.
As the Mail & Guardian has reported over the years, air pollution and Sasol are entwined narratives, particularly for the people living in nearby Embalenhle.
How air pollution affects you
The department’s inspection comes after a week of cold air and clouds trapped pungent gas, identified by its rotten-egg smell, over Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Although this can happen in winter, it is rare in summer, when clear skies and rising heat mean air pollution goes high and largely dissipates.
The fine particles are trapped inside the body and start breaking it down. As the M&G has reported before, someone who lives in Johannesburg their whole life will die three years earlier than they otherwise would, because of the air pollution.
Sources of air pollution
Senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), professor Rebecca Garland, said decarbonising South Africa’s energy sources could be the answer — and can help to improve air quality.
“The burning of fossil fuels in the industry and power sector, transport sector, for domestic heating and cooking (wood and coal in the house), as well as application of fertiliser, burning of waste, [and so on] are all anthropogenic sources of pollution. We also are impacted by natural sources of pollution such as veld fires, pollen, and dust. The resultant air-pollution levels are a combination of all of these,” she said.
What the law says
Nongovernmental legal group the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) said in a statement that it is concerned that the environment department has continuously downplayed any public outcry about the health effects of hydrogen sulfide.
It noted that in South Africa it is a criminal offence to “unlawfully and intentionally or negligently to commit any act or omission which causes significant pollution”.
“Air pollution, which causes harm to the health and wellbeing of people, particularly children, contravenes the Bill of Rights, which recognises the right to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing,” CER said, adding that local law also recognises “bad odours alone as sufficient to constitute significant harm to human wellbeing”.