S. Africa's Eskom pollutes more amid power crisis

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STORY: South Africa's Eskom has been polluting more as it pushes ageing coal-fired facilities to their limits amid a power crisis.

That's according to a Reuters analysis of the state utility's data.

It showed that four out of its 15 power plants are breaching government emissions regulations designed to protect people's health.

Eskom officials have confirmed the violations but said making the plants compliant would take time.

They also said it could undermine efforts to address South Africa's worst power crisis on record.

For the past 18 months, daily scheduled blackouts have left most South Africans without power for up to ten hours a day.

Some 80% of South Africa's electricity is generated from burning coal.

But, over the past four decades Eskom has achieved a 75% reduction in emissions of particulate matter - that's largely ash and soot - through a program of plant upgrades.

Now that trend is being reversed.

With power cuts expected to knock two percentage points off economic growth this year, Eskom's senior environment manager Deidre Herbst said plants were having to be run harder, with upgrades delayed.

"There is sometimes a trade-off made," she said.

Company-wide, Eskom's particulate emissions last year were at their worst levels since the early 1990s, according to an internal Eskom presentation.

The four power plants breaching regulations - Matimba, Matla, Kendal, and Kriel - account for more than a third of Eskom's total capacity.

But two were emitting more than double the permitted limit of particulate matter in February, the most recent month of available data.

The 35-year-old Kendal power station emitted an average of between 10 and 30-times the permissible limit.

And it is the poor who are put most at risk.

Three of the four violating facilities are located in the Mpumalanga province coal belt.

It is among South Africa's poorest regions, with nearly half the workforce unemployed.

An unpublished government study found that more than 5,000 have died there annually due to the government's failure to fully enforce its own air quality standards.

The environment ministry did not respond to Reuters questions about the violations.

Thomas Mnguni, a Mpumalanga community activist, said poor communities living near Eskom plants and coal mines were hit the hardest.

"We will not accept the thinking," he said, "That because of loadshedding, Eskom can pollute as much as they want."