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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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Environmental justice by advocating for better environmental laws and improved implementation of laws.

Lephalale Coal Mine Judicial Review

In July 2022, Earthlife Africa, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, launched a judicial review of an environmental authorisation issued for a proposed new coal mine in Lephalale, Limpopo. Earthlife Africa argues that the proposed coal mine is neither necessary nor desirable, would have serious health impacts for local communities and is in contravention of South Africa’s Constitutional obligation to safeguard the environment and protect the health and well-being of the people living here as well as its international obligations, such as those in the Paris Agreement, under which South Africa committed to decarbonise in order to avert worsening the climate emergency.

All four Respondents, namely the Minister responsible for the Environment, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, the Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy and Lephalale Coal Mines (Pty) Ltd have opposed the review application.

In March 2023, Earthlife Africa supplemented its papers and included additional expert reports quantifying the increased mortality, morbidity and economic burden that the proposed coal mine would cause if it were to go ahead.

The report of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) quantified the impacts of the proposed project on air quality, human health, and the economy, through performing air quality model simulations, and health and economic impact assessments. CREA found that the proposed coal mine would lead to air quality violations. Further, it found that air pollution from coal mining at the project will lead to an additional 93 premature deaths and a wide range of morbidity outcomes, including preterm (75) and underweight (76) births over the whole project lifecycle (35 years), with an economic cost of USD 75 million. The proposed coal mine did not take into account existing sources of pollution, the integrated impacts over the life-cycle of the mine were not considered, the long-range impacts of air pollution caused by the mine were discounted and there was no adequate quantification of the health impacts associated with the project. Furthermore, the economic impacts of the proposed coal mine, much of which would be borne by the public, were not assessed by the coal company.

The report of Professor Naidoo confirmed the findings made by CREA. Notably, Prof Naidoo’s report discusses unfunded liability; namely that the economic costs of the proposed coal mine would be externalised – they would be carried from the owners and beneficiaries of the coal mine and passed onto the public. Prof Naidoo found that “there is overwhelming scientific evidence for adverse health outcomes due to coal related pollutants. These are mostly dose-dependent. The communities within [the Lephalale] area are likely to be exposed to substantial levels of exposure, consistently above international benchmarks or levels known to cause ill-health. The AQIA [Air Quality Impact Assessment] and the CHIA [Community Health Impact Assessment] provides no estimates of the burden of ill-health likely to be experienced by these communities. The CREA Report clearly indicates the high levels of mortality and morbidity that will be experienced in these areas. In calculating the economic burden of this ill-health as a result of the exposure, the CREA Report presents a disturbing picture. The challenge is, in proceeding with a project that is, without doubt, going to result in ill-health, how will this “unfunded liability” be managed by the relevant stakeholders. Marginalised communities in the [Lephalale] region should not be expected to carry these costs.”

Court documents

Expert reports