groundWork is a non-profit environmental justice service and developmental organization working primarily in Southern Africa in the areas of Climate & Energy Justice, Coal, Environmental Health, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals, and Waste. groundWork is the South African member of Health Care Without Harm and Friends of the Earth International.
Environmental groups take government to High Court over violation of Constitutional right to clean air
Groups claim pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Highveld Priority Area violates right to a healthy environment under the Constitution
10 June 2019 - On Friday, 7 June 2019, environmental justice group groundWork and Mpumalanga community organisation Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action (Vukani) launched landmark litigation demanding that government clean up the air in the Mpumalanga Highveld.
groundWork and Vukani, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), claim that government has violated the Constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA), by failing to improve the deadly levels of air pollution in the HPA.
“Living in Witbank, one of the most polluted areas in the country, has hugely affected our health and lives. Both government and industry have continuously failed to deal with the problem, irrespective of our efforts to engage with them to ensure they take steps to protect human health. Together with groundWork, Vukani has decided to use litigation to push government to take urgent steps to deal with the high air pollution and in the interest of our health and to protect our right to clean air”, says Vusi Mabaso, Chairperson of Vukani.
In 2007, the then Minister of Environmental Affairs declared the Highveld as a Priority Area because of its poor air quality. At the time, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) acknowledged that it was an air pollution hotspot of extremely poor air quality and that “there was little doubt that people living and working in these areas do not enjoy air quality that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing”. Nearly 5 years later, in 2012, the Minister published an air quality management plan(“the HPA AQMP”) to clean up the Highveld Priority Area’s air pollution. But since then, little has changed.
2019 World Environment Day highlights SA deaths due to air pollution
04 June 2019 - On the 5th of June each year, the United Nations hosts World Environment Day, which is used to bring global awareness to severe environmental issues that require urgent political action.
This year’s World Environment Day is especially significant for South Africa where air pollution from coal-fired power stations kills more than 2 200 people every year. The theme for the 2019 United Nation’s annual World Environmental Day is “Beat Air Pollution” and aims to draw attention to the silent killer around us.
According to recent data from the World Health Organization, more than 7 million people die from air pollution, globally, every year. This includes more than 1.7 million child deaths every year, worldwide.
A 2017 report by UK-based air quality and health expert, Dr Mike Holland, found that air pollution from Eskom coal-fired power stations kills more than 2,200 South Africans every year, and causes thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually. “This costs the country more than R34 billion annually, through hospital admissions and lost working days,” says Bobby Peek, Director of environmental justice group groundWork.
Court disallows access to documents in preliminary SLAPP suit hearing
31 May 2019 - Yesterday, Judge Judith Cloete denied the application by two former CER attorneys and a community activist for subsidiary of Australian mining company MRC to disclose documents relating to the Tormin mineral sands operation near Lutzville on the West Coast. The applicants argue that they require these documents for their defence of the defamation claims brought by the company, Mineral Sands Resources (MSR).
The documents the defendants sought include records like the mine’s approved Social and Labour Plan, reports the mine needs to submit in terms of mining laws, reports by the mine’s environmental control officers, and email correspondence between the then mine manager Gary Thompson and MRC CEO Mark Caruso.
In her ruling, the judge found that the defendants should have pleaded their defence in greater detail, and held that requiring the mining company to provide so many documents to the defendants was “an impossibly burdensome task”.
Mining company's SLAPP suit against CER lawyers, activist in court today
29 May 2019 - The Western Cape High Court will today hear a preliminary application in one of three defamation suits launched against lawyers and activists who have been critical of Australian miner Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC)'s Tormin mining operation at Lutzville on the West Coast, and its planned mining operation at Xolobeni in Pondoland on the Wild Coast.
In one of the cases, Mineral Sands Resources (MSR), a subsidiary of MRC, sued two former lawyers from the Centre For Environmental Rights, Tracey Davies and Christine Reddell, and West Coast community activist, Davine Cloete, for a total of R1,25 million for alleged defamatory statements made at the University of Cape Town's Summer School in 2017.
Today, the High Court hears an application for an order compelling MSR to disclose key documents required for the defendants' defence. The company has argued that it is not obliged to provide these documents, which include a range of environmental permits and scientific reports.
Asina Loyiko: Activists unite against corporate censorship and bullying
28 May 2019 - Today, civil society organisations, including groundWork, officially launched a new joint advocacy campaign in Cape Town known as Asina Loyiko: United Against Corporate Bullying.
The campaign comes in response to the growing number of corporations, both in South Africa and globally, who use a tactic termed “SLAPP suits” – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation - to silence criticism and suppress public activism. These SLAPPs undermine Constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the media, and academic freedom.
SLAPPs, which often take the form of defamation suits, have become a trend around the world, including in South Africa, and particularly in relation to environmental defenders.
Australian mining company Mineral Resources Commodities Ltd (MRC), listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, has sued environmental activists, lawyers (including two former CER attorneys), a journalist and a newspaper for defamation in the amount of R9,25 million. These defamation suits are based on comments made by individuals critical of MRC and its South African subsidiaries – including statements made during a lecture at the University of Cape Town Summer School in 2017.
Durban floods - An open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa
24 May 2019 - The massive floods that hit KZN, and Durban in particular, in April 2019 are yet another indicator of how climate change is affecting our resilience, a fact acknowledged by President Cyril Ramaphosa. But there has been a strange silence since then, and big, carbon-intensive programmes are steaming ahead in the port city. Surely the time for talking is over?
President Ramaphosa, on 24 April 2019, you visited South Durban neighbourhoods. You had returned home to South Africa early from an important African Union conference because a catastrophic storm hit us on Easter Monday. The “rain bomb” that pounded South Durban included 168mm of downpour in 24 hours, by far the worst flooding ever recorded in the city.
Upon visiting our communities, you immediately gave us sound analysis: “This is partly what climate change is about, it just hits when we least expect it.”
We agree that the climate crisis must be talked about. And we hope you agree that the forces that caused this crisis – the major greenhouse gas emitters in the fossil fuel industries, transport (air, shipping and automotive), corporate agriculture, carbon-intensive production and consumption systems, and methane-emitting disposal at landfills, and their financiers – must be named and shamed.
Activists demand answers from polluter ArcelorMittal at its shareholder meeting
23 May 2019 - Local environmental justice group the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), together with local communities from Sebokeng, Boipatong, Boiphelong and Sharpeville, protested outside ArcelorMittal South Africa’s headquarters in Vanderbijlpark this morning as shareholders made their way to AMSA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).
Armed with signs saying “Stand with Us Against Big Polluters”, “AMSA Must Comply with MES”, and “Prevent Pollution, Protect Nature”, community members made clear their demands of the shareholders and executives of ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA).
Communities in the Vaal have suffered the effects of pollution from AMSA’s Vanderbijlpark plant for many decades.
Victory - Environment Minister withdraws illegally doubled SO2 pollution standards
23 May 2019 - Following groundWork’s litigation instituted last month to set aside government’s unlawful plan to double the amount of the harmful pollutant sulphur dioxide (SO2) polluters are allowed to emit, the Environmental Affairs Minister yesterday withdrew this provision.
The doubling had been published for implementation on 31 October 2018 without inviting public comment on it as the Air Quality Act requires – which made it unlawful.
In an attempt to remedy this failure, the Minister has now published a second notice, in which she invites 30 days’ public comment on the same proposed amendment to the minimum emission standards which would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously-allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020.
Eskom and Sasol are South Africa’s biggest emitters of SO2.
SO2 is a notorious pollutant that causes significant harm to human health and the environment. It can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes. Inflammation of the respiratory tract causes coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis, and makes people more prone to infections of the respiratory tract. Studies have linked SO2 to low birth weight in infants and an increased risk for gestational diabetes mellitus, stillbirths, and pre-term births. Hospital admissions for cardiac disease and mortality increase on days with higher SO2 levels. When SO2 combines with water, it forms sulphuric acid, which is the main component of acid rain.
Vaal Community take to Mass Action - Challenging Corporate Environmental Injustices – Challenging ArcelorMittal and Seriti Mining
23 May 2019 - In a media release the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) has announced that:
"Today, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance kicks off two days of mass action against corporate environmental injustices in the Vaal area. Corporates such as ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) and Seriti continue with impunity their everyday business of polluting society that impacts upon people's health and well-being. Government is a co-conspirator for they fail to enforce laws that are there to protect the people of the Vaal.
The Vaal Triangle was declared the first High Priority Area (HPA) by the Department of Environmental Affairs in 2006. Since then nothing has changed in terms of compliance with ambient air quality standards that harms people's health and well-being".
Records show Minister's failure to interrogate devastating impacts of proposed coal plant
21 May 2019 - New records filed in court by the Department of Environmental Affairs show that the Minister of Environmental Affairs did not properly consider the unacceptably high climate impacts of the proposed Thabametsi coal-fired power station, which was first authorised in February 2015.
These records were filed as part of environmental justice groups Earthlife Africa and groundWork's court challenge instituted in March last year to set aside the Minister of Environmental Affairs' decision to authorise the emission-intensive Thabametsi coal-fired power station in Limpopo. The Minister authorised the plant irrespective of the evidence of the project's very high climate change impacts, which the Minister had been ordered (in a previous successful court challenge by Earthlife Africa) in March 2017 to consider. Earthlife Africa and groundWork now have filed supplementary papers, setting out the Minister's failures.
Thabametsi, if it proceeds, would be one of the most emission-intensive coal-fired power stations in the world, and would cost South Africa R12.57 billion in comparison to a least-cost electricity system.
Global Green and Healthy Hospitals releases 2018 Annual Report
15 May 2019 - Global Green and Healthy Hospitals (GGHH), a project of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), is an international network of hospitals, health care facilities, health systems, and health organizations dedicated to reducing their environmental footprint and promoting public and environmental health.
Launched in 2011, the GGGH network has more than 1,160 members in 55 countries on 6 continents who represent the interests of over 36,000 hospitals and health centres. From small rural health clinics, to modern urban hospitals, to sub-national and national ministries of health, the GGHH network is as diverse as it is expansive.
This diversity and reach is the strength and backbone of GGHH that supports network members to take action. By sharing experiences, successes and challenges, GGHH members are working together locally, nationally, regionally and internationally to transform the health sector and foster a healthy, sustainable future.
CER calls for a new Climate Change portfolio in the Presidency
14 May 2019 - The Centre for Environmental Rights has written to President Ramaphosa about his upcoming cabinet selection, asking him to give priority to the urgent need to improve environmental governance in South Africa by appointing Ministers and Deputy Ministers who are strong, forward thinking leaders, committed to reforming environmental and water governance, and addressing the global threat of climate change.
In particular, CER has recommended that a climate change portfolio be created in the Presidency, alternatively that a new Department of Energy and Climate be created; and that no attempt be made to merge the dysfunctional Department of Water & Sanitation with another department.
groundWork goes to court to defeat Minister’s plan to weaken air pollution standards
06 May 2019 - Environmental justice group groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), has launched High Court proceedings against Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and the President of South Africa to set aside government’s plan to double the amount of the harmful pollutant sulphur dioxide (SO2) polluters are allowed to emit.
The weakening of the standards gazetted by the Minister would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously-allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020. This includes the already heavily-polluted Vaal, Highveld and Waterberg Priority Areas, where coal pollution kills thousands of people every year.
The weakened standards for SO2 are now approximately 10 times weaker than the equivalent standards in India and about 28 times weaker than the standards in China.
If the court agrees with groundWork, big SO2 emitters like Eskom and Sasol will have to act immediately to reduce their pollution and so reduce their impact on people’s health and well-being. This will require significant capital expenditure – which industries want to avoid – or they could face both criminal and civil action for violating the law.