Medupi’s killer fumes: The story of a power station’s missing air scrubbers

Eskom's Medupi power station. Picture: Supplied to Moneyweb

If flue gas desulphurisation technology, which scrubs the fumes of some of the sulphur dioxide emitted, is not installed in the next 10 years, 900 people could die from pollution-related illnesses.

Eskom’s mega-power station Medupi is suffocating South Africa in more ways than one: It is not just a financial black hole; it is also a health and environmental catastrophe. And the installation of crucial technology to make it less poisonous has once again been delayed.

For years, Eskom has failed to install flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) technology, commonly known as air scrubbers which scrub the fumes from the station of some of the sulphur dioxide (SO2) that is emitted.

When operating at full capacity, Medupi will emit, by some estimates, more SO2 than the UK did in 2017, without the air scrubbers. Currently, it causes an estimated 300 premature deaths every year. It now appears as though the FGD technology will not be installed for at least another 10 years.

Eskom said it had been hampered by financial problems as well as technical and logistical problems, but it was complying with all its legislative requirements, adding it took the environmental and social impacts of its projects seriously.

Years behind schedule and billions over budget, the 4 800MW coal-fired power station, combined with its sister station, Kusile, are partly responsible for Eskom’s R450bn debt problem.In 2010, Eskom signed an agreement with the World Bank to install the FGD technology. At the end of December 2019, with the technology still outstanding, the loan agreement was amended for the seventh time. Eskom now says the technology will only be fitted by 2030. The technology is expected to cost around R30bn – money it says it does not have.

Making people sick

But time is ticking for those who live and work near the plant.

Assuming Medupi runs at full capacity, without the FGD, about 90 people could die every year. That means that if the FGD is not installed in the next 10 years, 900 people could die from pollution-related illnesses. This according to a study by Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead researcher at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

“Eskom’s problem is that the [Medupi] project has seen gigantic cost overruns, becoming the most expensive coal-fired power plant in the world. As a result, they keep running out of money to finish it, which they shouldn’t do anyway as they would be better off abandoning the unfinished units.

“But what they are trying to do is to cut corners, get the plant running, and then use the cash generated to pay for scrubbers. [Unless, and this is a serious possibility, they simply plan on putting it off again or indefinitely], Myllyvirta told News24.

The cost of illness

A 2017 study by economist Dr Mike Holland found more than 2,000 people have died from illnesses caused by pollution from Eskom’s coal fleet, at a cost of around R30bn to the economy.

Medupi is responsible for about R5.8 billion of that amount and causes more than 450 cases of chronic bronchitis; more than 1,500 cases of bronchitis in people aged 6 to 19, and more than 15,000 cases of asthma in children every year. The power station’s pollution killed about 364 people every year, according to the Holland study.

It is difficult to link anecdotal, individual cases of health problems to pollution directly. But Elana Greyling, an environmental activist in Lephalale, believes the issue is the cause of many cases of asthma, allergies, and other health problems in the community.

Lephalale is sandwiched between the Medupi and Matimba power stations, about 20 minutes’ drive either way from the town.

Greyling’s daughter has asthma. Their family doctor said this could be related to the pollution from the power stations. Recently, Greyling found out she has blood clots in her lungs. Doctors are still conducting tests, but her doctor also suspects that the pollution is either causing or aggravating the condition.

Legal limits

Eskom said its particular matter and nitrous oxide emissions (the other major emitters that are spewed from coal-power stations) were within the legal limits and it monitored spikes in Medupi’s SO2 emissions regularly.

But South Africa’s air quality legislation requires Eskom to do more than this. It must, by law, abide by certain minimum emissions standards. It has been unable to do so for many of its power stations, and has been granted repeated postponements for compliance from the regulator.

Unable to comply with legislated minimum emission standards for SO2 at Medupi, ostensibly due to the delayed installation of the FGD technology, Eskom asked the regulator if it could change the standards from a daily emission rate to a monthly one. This was granted in September 2018.

Eskom now wants another “alternative” SO2 emissions standards for Medupi from the regulator, again citing the delayed installation of the FGD technology. And once the technology is installed, in 2030, Eskom then wants a minimum emissions standard that will see it emit even greater amounts of SO2 monthly than what it would have after 2025, had it stuck to the original legal limits.

In other words, until the FGD technology is installed, Eskom says it will not be able to comply with the legal limits for SO2 emissions, which are already far weaker than those of other developing countries. Much of Eskom’s coal fleet would not be allowed to operate lawfully in China or India.

Reducing Eskom’s emissions

The retrofitting of the FGD technology was a legal covenant of the World Bank loan to Eskom. This, coupled with other emission-offsetting projects, was a condition by the World Bank for funding of some of Medupi’s construction costs.

South Africa is already the 14th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world; on par with the UK, which has an economy several times bigger than South Africa’s. Eskom’s coal-power fleet contributes around 40% of these emissions.

The UN international panel on climate change found in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the world will need to stop using coal as a power source totally and cut emissions to zero by 2050.

Delays

The original 2010 World Bank agreement states that Eskom must “develop, adopt and thereafter implement a programme … to install FGD equipment at each of the six units of the Medupi power plant…”

The first unit should have been fitted with the technology by March 2018, with all the units being fitted by December 2021. These deadlines have been shifted several times since.

The most recent agreement, the seventh amendment to the original one, was signed on December 30, 2019 – a day before it was due to expire. Eskom told the World Bank the FGD equipment would be installed between 2027 and 2032.

Water

At the heart of the FGD dilemma for Eskom is water. The specific FGD technology selected by Eskom is water-intensive and, in the dry hinterlands of Limpopo, it will have to be piped in. This is over and above the significant amount of water that must be sourced for Medupi to operate.

The World Bank documents explain Eskom’s current water use licence allows it to take 10.9 million cubic metres of water a year from the Moloko Dam, which is about 60km from Medupi, for the power station.

It will need an additional 4.5 million cubic metres of water to operate all the FGD technology. This it plans to do by taking more water from Moloko and constructing pipelines to extract water from the Crocodile River. Authorisation to move ahead with the Crocodile dam project was given by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in March last year, but it is being appealed by environmental groups.

The project has been further hampered by Eskom’s plan to mix coal ash with gypsum, a kind of residue from the FGD, which the department rejected. It would take about two years to resolve these issues, Eskom told the World Bank. Eskom told News24 it could not start contracting for the project until this was resolved.

Financing

Eskom also told News24 the biggest delay for the FGD project had been raising funding for the project and getting the necessary government guarantees.

It also needs approval from the Department of Public Enterprises for the legalities around procuring the technology, which has been conditionally approved pending a market analysis and analysing local industry opportunities, which Eskom said would “take some time”.

And Eskom said at the time of Medupi’s construction, the minimum emissions standards were not in place, so lowering its SO2 emissions to legal standards was not a requirement for it to get environmental authorisation to build the power station.

This was why the technology had to be retrofitted, Eskom said, adding all the required environmental licences for Medupi were in place.

But activists said Eskom could have avoided these problems through better planning.

Michelle Koyama, attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), said during the environmental impact assessment (EIA) phase of the FGD project, the CER had asked for a feasibility study to ensure that the technology could be commissioned simultaneously to each of Medupi’s units.

“These submissions were repeated throughout the EIA process in 2015, 2016, and 2018 but largely ignored, and the FGD was not co-commissioned. Eskom therefore had ample opportunity to consider alternative such as co-commissioning the units together with the FGD as far back as 2014. The delay experienced in the installation therefore is of its own making,” Koyama said.

She added Eskom should have considered FGD options that were less water intensive, which would not cause the waster-disposal problems it now faced, much earlier in the process.

Holding Eskom to account

Asked why it has continued to let Eskom off the hook with the delays in installing the FGD, the World Bank cited Eskom’s energy supply problems.

The bank said it was working with Eskom to find ways to reduce its SO2 emissions until the FGD was in place. It added it would keep monitoring the environmental and social impacts of Eskom’s emissions reduction project until the project was complete.

Asked whether it intended to hold Eskom to account for failing to complete the projects on time, the Bank said: “The World Bank continues to support Eskom in the implementation of the Eskom investment support project to ensure compliance with applicable emissions requirements and that the project contributes as intended to improving the power supply situation in South Africa.”

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