Eskom. Photo: SANews

JOHANNESBURG – South African coal mining town, Kriel, has been identified by satellite data from US space agency NASA as having one of the highest sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the world. The only place with higher emissions is Russia’s Norilsk smelter complex.

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Norilsk Nickel’s nickel plant in the Russia’s Arctic city of Norilsk, April 16, 2010 – the only city in the world to have worse SO2 emissions than Kriel in South Africa. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin/ File Photo

Scientists say that excessive exposure to SO2 particles causes long-term respiratory difficulties and stunted growth in infants among other problems.

Kriel – about 150km east of Johannesburg – is home to state power utility Eskom’s 2,850 megawatt Kriel Power Station, a short distance from two other coal-fired plants – Matla and Kendel – as well as Sasol’s coal-to-liquid plants.

The town is part of a 31,000 sq km area that covers three provinces and houses 12 coal power stations. It was declared a high-priority zone by the government in 2007 because of dangerously high pollution.

South Africa is Africa’s worst polluter and one of the world’s top 10 coal producers, with an estimated 3.5% of the world’s coal resources, according to the International Energy Agency.

Environmental and community groups sued the government in June for failing to tackle high pollution in the Highveld Priority Area. The groups want the court to force the government to implement an air quality management plan that was published by the environmental affairs minister in 2012.

Environmental ministry spokesman Albi Modise said the NASA report was worrying and that national air quality plans needed to be reviewed urgently but that economic growth also had to be protected.

“You can’t wake up and say you’re closing all the coal power stations; imagine what will happen to electricity supply and the communities around them? We have to balance growth with protecting the environment.”

Eskom, which provides 90% of the country’s power, relies on a fleet of aging coal-fired plants and is struggling to meet its emissions target.

The only place with worse individual SO2 emissions is Russia’s Norilsk, 300km (186 miles) inside the Arctic Circle.

The industrial city is home to Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer.

The company is implementing a massive program to improve the ecology of the city and its surroundings.

Under snow for up to nine months of the year and in darkness for more than a month in winter, Norilsk has acquired a reputation as one of the most polluted settlements in the world because of its metals plants. Prisoners from Joseph Stalin’s labor camps built the first smelters there 80 years ago.

The NASA-compiled data published on Monday was commissioned by environmental group Greenpeace India and used the space authority’s satellites to track anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emission hot spots around the world.

Matla Power Station, Kriel:

Posted by Tshepo Mokalapa on Monday, September 4, 2017

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and David Goodman of Reuters, and Jenni Baxter / SAPeople)