THE Department of Environmental Affairs is looking to clear the air when its air quality management chief director, Thuli Mdluli, addresses MPs next month on a newly published list of mandatory emissions limits for industrial processes.
The issue has caused widespread unhappiness in the industry. Environmental lobby groups and industry players last month called for the withdrawal of the list, saying significant changes to the initial draft had not been properly discussed with them, resulting in a relaxation of air quality standards.
The standards are part of a new regime under the Air Quality Act promulgated in 2004. The groups say that adopting the published emissions list would have public health consequences.
Dr Mdluli said she had received no formal letter requesting the list’s withdrawal. However, she had a letter from the Centre for Environmental Rights and the Legal Resources Centre asking for public hearings on it.
Centre for Environmental Rights director Melissa Fourie said: "We’re grateful the committee (of environmental affairs) agrees with us that this matter deserves parliamentary scrutiny. We hope the hearings will attract some independent air quality experts and researchers to assist the public and MPs to understand what is being proposed, and what the risks are for the South African public."
Environmentalists and industry have both said the list — published for comment in November — contained substantial changes to an initial list, published in 2010, which was the result of four years of debate and hard bargaining. The comment period was now closed, and it was expected that a final list would be published some time this year.
Research shows South Africa’s ambient air quality does not come close to reaching benchmarks set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Dr Mdluli said she would present to the committee on the consultation process that had led to the list.
She said the WHO had set "guidelines, not standards", and that the Air Quality Act was "a beginning" that allowed the government to work towards improving South Africa’s air quality. The act had a built-in deadline of 2015 for raising the standard.
"We have standards for immediate compliance now, and we will go stricter ; we are doing a lot of air quality work," Dr Mdluli said.
While the nongovernmental organisations represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights and the Legal Resources Centre — at least 10 — say the changes "significantly relax" mandatory minimum emission standards for various industrial processes — sometimes by up to 60% — Chemical and Allied Industries Association executive director Lorraine Lötter said this was not true.