There are fears that a shutdown of Kendal power station in Mpumalanga would paralyse several small businesses and destroy livelihoods in the coal mining towns.
Environmental activists are piling on pressure for a complete shutdown of the 4116MW power plant, located 40km west of eMalahleni, on the grounds that its toxic emissions were killing people.
“Poisonous coal power plants must be shut down sooner rather than later, in a fair process that fully involves all coal workers and communities, and urgently replaced with cleaner, cheaper renewable power,” said Timothy Lloyd, attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights.
Environment Minister Barbara Creecy has already instructed Eskom to stop operations at least at one of two Kendal power station units found to be posing serious health risks to the surrounding communities.
Eskom had no plans to decommission Kendal, built in 1982. The power utility began shutting down some of its old power stations last year. It shut three units at the Hendrina power station, also in Mpumalanga. Grootvlei was scheduled to close this year and Komati by 2021. Arnot will be decommissioned by 2029.
Concerned coal transporting businesses believe the move to decommission stations will put them out of business and leave coal mining towns with no economy.
“We went on strike against the move to introduce independent power producers. Our position remains the same,” said Mary Phadi, spokesperson of the Coal Transporters Forum.
In a notice served on Eskom late last week, Creecy said the power utility must stop operations at either unit one or unit five at Kendal within 30 days.
She backtracked from an instruction she made in November that both units should cease operations, until they complied with emission requirements.
Eskom served Creecy with papers in January, objecting to her November instructions, saying the order was irrational and unreasonable and that “no reasonable department could have taken it”.
It submitted that the units had been repaired and their present problems were the result of poor coal quality, and due to poor quality of work on site.
It was crucial for the units to remain active for the utility to meet the country’s electricity demands and avoid or limit load shedding, said Eskom.
Creecy found that there was no merit in Eskom’s position that the earlier instruction was irrational. Creecy said Eskom “misrepresented the facts” about the level of emissions from the units.
“As an example, they claim that Unit 5 averaged less than 600mg/nM3 in February 2019,” she said. “But according to the monthly Emissions Report for February 2019, the monthly average is estimated at 1227mg/nM3.
“It follows that the figure of 600mg/nM3 emanates from the fact that Eskom decided to add days in which the unit was switched off in determining the monthly average.
“Eskom is well aware that this is an unacceptable practice,” said Creecy.
The decision to force stoppage of one unit took into consideration the need to avoid load shedding, Creecy said.
“In essence, the operation of units 1 and 5 should not be ceased simultaneously.
“In my view, this will allow (Eskom) an opportunity to carry out the required maintenance and remedial work on one unit at a time in order to bring the units in compliance with the requirements of the Atmospheric Emission Licence.”
Creecy said she was aware that Kendal power station presented major environmental and health hazards to communities.
“I am mindful of the fact that the failure to take action to bring the power station back into compliance, among others, will continue to present serious environmental impacts and health threats to the affected communities,” she said.
“I have also noted that (Eskom is) committed to ensuring that they manage and operate Kendal power station in such a manner that risks to the environment and human health are minimised.
“The reduction of particulate matter into the atmosphere has been identified by (Eskom) as an issue, which has to be prioritised and that the identified issue is getting urgent attention,” she said. Eskom has conceded to the emission problem at the station.
“The station has been operating above the emission limits since the strike action late in 2018 left infrastructure vandalised and damaged,” spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha said.
“During the strike the interior of the electrostatic precipitator (ESP) was vandalised and the functioning of the dust-handling plant compromised.
“To repair it, the ESPs of several generation units require long outages and the repairs on generation units can only be executed one after the other.”
Environmental NGOs gave Creecy what they termed evidence that emissions from Kendal were responsible for as many as 274 deaths between November 2018 and October 2019
By Bongani Nkosi