Fighting for your right to a healthy environment

Professor Eugene Cairncross.

LIMPOPO – Eugene fights for the right of the ordinary persons on the street to breathe fresh air, to drink clean water and live out their constitutional right to live in an environment that is not harmful. He believes people have the right to know what is happening around them and that David can truly conquer the giant.

Eugene obtained a B.Sc and Ph.D in chemical engineering from the University of Cape Town. After graduating, he worked for several large chemical companies in Cape Town, Harare (Zimbabwe) and Johannesburg, in senior technical positions. In 1994 he left the private sector and joined Peninsula Technikon (later Cape Peninsula University of Technology) as a senior lecturer, later becoming a full professor.

His research activities mainly relate to water and air pollution (including air quality modelling) and chemical process safety. He became involved in the environmental movement around 1995, both as an activist and in a technical support role, things he continues to do. He retired from the university in 2010, but continues to do some research in collaboration with the SA Medical Research Council and remains dedicated to the fight against big companies polluting.

He has done a lot of research on emissions of and the monitoring of these emissions from Eskom’s power stations. Eskom is in the process of applying for postponement to adhere to the law regarding minimum emission standards, thus giving them the right to pollute more than the law permits.

“The problem with emissions from Matimba and the partially completed Medupi is not so much non-compliance with their licence conditions, but because several factors combine to worsen the environmental and health impact of these two plants. There are two sets of standards. The standards for existing plants (of the ‘MES’) are in fact quite lax and permissive so both Matimba and Medupi’s emissions of sulphur dioxide are high, even compared with other Eskom coal plants. This is due to the high sulphur content of Waterberg coal and the absence of Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FGD) systems, which could reduce these emissions by up to 95%. These factors, combined with the large size of both plants, even by world standards, and their close proximity to each other, means their emissions combine to worsen the overall impact in a relatively small area,” he explains.

“The ‘new plant’ standards of the MES, which were supposed to come into effect in 2020, are closer to industrialised countries’ emission standards, which is why postponement of compliance means we will suffer from the pollution for at least another five years from 2020.”

Getting hold of reliable information is not easy and, according to Eugene, the calculations are complicated. “But if they are not complying, they are operating illegally, so legal steps should be taken – they should be put on notice and prosecuted if all else fails.”

The Waterberg area is under threat of even more proposed coal-fired power stations and mines with the cumulative effect being bad news for inhabitants of the Bushveld.

Eugene is part of an alliance called Life After Coal that believes there are alternatives to coal for both power generation and decent non-life threatening jobs.

[email protected]

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Elana Greyling

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