Since the beginning of winter, residents in Pietermaritzburg have been noticing changes in the air and smell of the city.
Msunduzi Municipality said during the winter months of June to August, the city is particularly susceptible to an accumulation of pollution because it lies in a basin.
They said during this time, atmospheric conditions and low-level inversions give rise to a visible brown haze, which has been a cause for concern for many years.
Municipal spokesperson Ntobeko Mkhize said the indiscriminate burning of waste within the municipal areas to recover scrap metal during the winter months has been a major concern in the city with the resultant palls of black smoke.
The acrid smoke is a nuisance and a health problem to localised areas close to where the burning takes place. Large tracts of vacant land being burnt during the winter months as well as burning in the timber plantations on the escarpments of the valley basin, and harvesting of burnt sugar cane from the sugar cane plantations on the hilltops compounds the dispersion of pollutants in the basin.
She said motor vehicle emissions and incidental burning as well as fires at the municipal dump were also contributing to the pollution.
Mkhize said they have noted a spike in readings during the fires, but these have not exceeded the national limits.
Residents have been complaining about the pollution and these were immediately investigated and enforcement action was instituted where necessary, she said.
Some of these are resolved quickly while some matters take longer and require the support of legal services.
Mkhize said any non-compliance in terms of environmental health legislation is addressed with compliance notices and instructions to the industries concerned to take remedial steps within a specified time frame.
Non-compliance by any of these industries results in the environmental health unit instituting legal proceedings and admission of guilt fines ranging from R1 500 to R5 000 per count.
However, Mkhize said the municipality’s environmental management inspectors can now enforce National Environmental legislation and penalties with a maximum fine of R5 million and or five years imprisonment.
She said notices are normally complied with, “occasionally with interventions from our legal unit”.
The environmental health unit monitors ambient air according to the criteria for pollutants and operates a network of real-time air quality monitoring stations reporting directly to the South African Air Quality Information System, she said.
Residents have complained that the air quality is toxic.
One resident said:
It’s like industries are not considering our health, but more people are burning as they please.
According to the Air quality Index (AQI) for Pietermaritzburg Airport in Oribi, extremely high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have been recorded in the area in the past 48 hours.
Weekend Witness spoke to Rico Euripidou, an environmental health professional from groundWork — a non-profit environmental organisation in Pietermaritzburg — on the high levels of nitrogen dioxide, air pollution and the health effects it has on residents.
According to Euripidou, the main sources of nitrogen dioxide are the burning of fossil fuels, industrial activities, emissions from cars, trucks, buses or power plants and any kind of heavy machinery.
“We are in the winter season and it is quite cold. Pietermaritzburg, from a historical perspective, does not have good geophysical conditions to allow the dispersion of air pollution,” said Euripidou.
Pietermaritzburg is built in a bowl and is surrounded by high hills. In winter there are definitely temperature inversions which trap the pollution, and to add to that there are probably fires burning and the massive works on the N3 result in cars and trucks going much slower than usual, which means they are contributing to the pollution more than they would normally.
He added that it is the accumulation of all these factors that has an impact on air pollution in the city.
Euripidou said air pollution is a massive public health problem, but government generally doesn’t do much about it because it disproportionally affects people who are poor or those who don’t complain about it. And it is invisible.
Millions of people died of Covid in the past two-and-a-half years. In that same period, globally, over 20 million people would have died from air pollution, and those figures come from the World Health Organisation.
“It doesn’t just because of asthma or breathing problems. Air pollution that is very fine and small is known not just to penetrate very deeply in the lungs, but also gets into those deep spaces in the lungs and exchange with the oxygen and carbon dioxide; and when that happens it gets carried by your blood around your body and that’s when air pollution can affect other organ systems,” said Euripidou.
He added that Pietermaritzburg should invest in a network of air quality monitors to make it easier to establish where exactly the air pollution is coming from and how far it is spreading.
If you are recording the same levels of pollution everywhere then it means that we have a problem everywhere and if not, then we might be able to understand where the pollution is coming from and work towards fixing that.
He said municipalities around the country deliberately neglect their equipment, so that when it fails they don’t have the public constantly asking questions about pollution levels.
groundWork is currently working on the deadly air litigation project, he said.
“The life after coal campaign is a joint campaign between Earth Organisation South Africa, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights.
One of the things that we did was to take government to court to test the legal constitutional responsibility about whether or not the government has to act on air pollution because air pollution affects people’s constitutional rights,” said Euripidou.
The group won its case in March 2022, but the minister of the Environment, Barbara Creecy, applied for leave to appeal some parts of the deadly air judgement in April.
This is still ongoing.