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Air Quality and Regulation PDF Print E-mail

An article by Yvanne Scorgie

Persistent problems and emerging issues

South Africa is plagued by a number of pressing and persistent air pollution problems in addition to facing various new emerging air pollution issues. High ambient sulphur dioxide and fine particulate concentrations experienced in many urban areas are due primarily to fuel burning within the household, industrial and powergeneration sectors.

Human health impacts related to household coal and wood burning remains the most serious and pressing national air pollution problem. The co-location of heavy industries and communities presents a continued source of health risks and consequent conflict, currently exacerbated by increased pressure to place residential areas within former industrial buffer zones. Human health impacts due to inhalation of emissions from the fuel-burning energy, industrial, transportation and residential sectors were recently quantified in a study commissioned by the National Economic, Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). Total respiratory hospital admissions across various South African conurbations were calculated to be in the order of 120 000, with total direct health costs due to respiratory conditions related to fuel-burning emissions being estimated to be in the order of 2002 cases, which is equal to a cost of R3.5 billion. Residential fuel burning was estimated to result in the greatest health risks accounting for approximately 70% of all respiratory hospital admissions due to fuel-burning exposures.

Many new and emerging air pollution issues relate to the transportation sector, particularly road transportation. The growth in vehicle activity and the ageing of the national vehicle fleet is projected to offset planned and proposed national emissionreduction measures aimed at the regulation of fuel composition and new vehicle technology. Although air quality limits for nitrogen oxide and ozone are infrequently exceeded in South African cities, a notable increase in the concentrations of these pollutants is apparent. Volatile organic compound releases from fuel filling stations and nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbon releases from major airports have also served to highlight the air quality implications of transportation policies.

lthough sources of common pollutants that result in widespread health and environmental risks continue to require close attention, also of concern are activities associated with trace releases of toxins. Such releases, which are associated with waste treatment and disposal operations and certain industrial operations, have the potential to significantly impact on the wellbeing of local communities if poorly controlled. Nuisance impacts related to odour and dust emissions are similarly not new problems, but the manner in which nuisance sources and ‘toxic hotspots’ are likely to be managed in future (given increasing public pressure and recent legislative reform) represent significant emerging challenges.
Responses to air pollution challenges – The emergence of air quality management

The National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, Act No. 39 of 2004 is in the process of replacing the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act (APPA), Act 45 of 1965. The Air Quality Act requires a shift from source-based air pollution control to a receiving environment, air quality management approach. Key features of the new approach to air quality governance include:

  • Decentralisation of air quality management responsibilities
  •  A requirement that all significant sources be identified, quantified and addressed
  • Setting of ambient air quality targets as goals to achieve emission reductions
  • Recognition of source-based, command-and-control measures (i.e. authorities set source requirements and emission limits requiring adherence by responsible parties), in addition to alternative measures, including market incentives and disincentives, voluntary programmes, and education and awareness
  • Promotion of cost-optimised mitigation and management measures
  • Required air quality management planning by authorities and emission reduction and management planning by sources
  • Access to information and public consultation
  • The new approach has significant implications for government, business and civil society.

Air quality governance

The new air quality governance approach will necessitate considerable capacity building within national, provincial and local government. National government, in the form of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), is responsible for the setting of national norms and standards for emission control, air quality monitoring, air quality information management and air quality planning. DEAT is also required to develop, review and revise systems and procedures for attaining compliance with air quality standards and protocols in order to give effect to South Africa’s obligations under international agreements.

Under the Air Quality Act, local authorities will be responsible for monitoring air pollution and meeting nationally set ambient air quality limits. In order to manage and maintain air quality to within these limits, such authorities will be required to identify the sources contributing to non-compliance and to develop emission reduction programmes for such sources. Air quality management systems established for baseline characterisation and tracking progress made by emission reduction programmes will be documented in Air Quality Management Plans, which are required to be compiled and integrated into the local authorities’ Integrated Development Plans.

The Air Quality Act designates district municipalities and metropolitan municipalities as atmospheric-emissions licensing authorities. Such municipalities will be responsible for the regulation of enterprises undertaking so-called ‘listed activities’, i.e. activities associated with potentially significant atmospheric emissions. Provincial environmental departments are primarily tasked with monitoring the air quality management performance of local government, but may become responsible for the licensing of ‘listed activities’ in the event that: (i) local government is unable to fulfil the function, (ii) local government requests that the function be taken by province, or (iii) local government is undertaking the listed activity requiring licensing.

Various local authorities have proactively developed air quality management plans prior to the promulgation of the Air Quality Act, while others are still in the process of doing so. The Vaal Triangle, which faces complex and pressing air pollution challenges, has been designated as the first ‘priority area’ under the Air Quality Act. This area will consequently be the focus of concerted, mandatory baseline air pollution characterisation and air quality management efforts. The plan to be development under the leadership of national government will coordinate air quality management efforts by all tiers of government, document emissions reduction measures and establish a committee representing relevant role players to oversee the implementation of the plan.