A COALITION of environmental groups has urged Environment Minister Edna Molewa not to buckle under legal pressure from the petrochemical industry to water down air pollution standards due to take effect next April.
In an open letter to Molewa, 11 organisations including groundWork, Greenpeace, Earthlife and the Centre for Environmental Rights, said they were alarmed that Sasol and the National Petroleum Refiners of SA had launched legal action earlier this year to stop the government from introducing new pollution standards for industry.
“If you or the national air quality officer grant Sasol and National Petroleum Refiners of SA any indulgence in relation to their obligations to comply with the emission standards, it will open the door for all polluting industries in South Africa to demand the same relaxations. This will set an appalling precedent for compliance with environmental laws, diminish the authority of the government, and the Department of Environmental Affairs, and put the health and constitutional rights of South Africans at risk,” the 11 environmental groups said in their letter.
In a joint court application lodged in the Gauteng Provincial Division of the High Court, sitting in Pretoria in May, Sasol/National Petroleum Refiners spokesman Herman van der Walt argued that the two petrochemical groups had not been consulted properly when the new air quality standards were gazetted.
Van der Walt said the new standards failed to consider the impact of other sources of pollution and it was also not feasible to retrofit certain refineries to reduce pollution in a costeffective way.
“This is as unreasonable as requiring an old Volkswagen Beetle to perform with the efficiency of a new MercedesBenz,” he suggested.
There was no benefit to society, he said, if industry was required to invest significant costs to comply with a minimum emission standard that was not premised on a riskbased approach and that might not deliver “meaningful improvements” in ambient air quality.
But the environmental groups noted that Sasol was an “extraordinarily profitable” company, having increased its profits by 7 percent to R41.7 billion for the financial year, which ended in June.
“Despite this, one of Sasol’s key arguments is that the benefits of legal compliance are just not worth the costs. We believe that it is both inappropriate and immoral to compare the costs to be incurred by Sasol to reduce their air pollution to the cost to human health if they fail to comply with air quality laws.”
The Centre for Environmental Rights also questioned why Sasol had failed to invest what was needed to comply with the law.
“Being a Sasol shareholder is clearly a profitable exercise. But we no longer live in a world in which the only factor we need to consider when deciding where to invest is how much money a company makes, without asking questions about how it generates such extraordinary profits… It should be striving to be a shining example of responsible corporate citizenship. Instead, Sasol is leading the vanguard of big industry determined to continue to profit at the expense of our environment and our health,” the centre said.
Last month, Molewa told the National Assembly she had agreed to talk to Sasol to find a solution to the legal dispute, but no details have emerged