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December 08, 2011

Visiting Some of the World's Biggest Coal Sites in South Africa

Coal in South Africa

Inside the climate negotiations people talk about pollution, energy access, and deadly climate disruption, but too often they never take the time to see it for themselves just outside the COP location. Durban is less than two hours away from the world's largest coal exports terminal at Richard's Bay, which ships 91 million tons of the dirtiest fuel every year. There are a lot of "world's biggest" projects when it comes to coal in South Africa, and Richard's Bay is a preview into what is happening deeper in the country. I joined Bobby Peek, the director of groundWork South Africa, and traveled to the Highveld region in Mpumalanga Province to see for myself the destruction coal is wreaking on the people and their land.

The Highveld region has a special connection to the United States, as our government financed over $800 million to build the 4,800 MW Kusile coal-fired power station there, despite the fact that the region already exceeds South African standards for sulfur and other deadly pollution due to the multiple coal-fired plants nearby. Once completed, Kusile and its twin the Medupi plant in Limpopo province (which received a $3.75 billion loan from the World Bank) will be the third and fourth largest coal-fired power plants in the world.

But Highveld is no stranger to massive coal projects. The South African public utility Eskom still advertises its 4,116 MW Kendal Power Station as the world’s biggest operating coal-fired plant, and the nearby Sasol coal-to-liquids facility is the world’s largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions. The resulting pollution from these projects damages the fertile farmland and endangers residents as it encroaches from both above and below in the form of acid rain and underground coal fires (pdf). Meanwhile, the tunnels left by underground coal mines are now filled with petroleum as part of South Africa's Strategic Fuel Fund.

As we traveled through Highveld, we picked up two women who volunteer with groundWork and call this region home. They took us to an open pit coal mine situated near a settlement of small homes, like the ones they live in with their siblings and children. Inside the mine, we could see smoke rising from the shifted coal as it slowly burned below the surface in the sun and a looming power plant on the horizon.

Our guides also live near one of the many coal mines in the area, and they told us how the blasting has caused their walls to crack. Residents were promised a community project and jobs when the mine came, but the community project never materialized and only four to six people were actually hired -- the rest of the workers come from somewhere else. Along the road to the mine, the company left piles of low grade coal for the residents to burn, raising the question of why people living next door to massive power projects still do not have access to electricity.

A pile of coal on the side of the road

Bobby explained that industry swallows up a whopping 60 percent of South Africa's electricity, and the Australian company BHP accounts for 10 percent of the country's power use on its own. Only 16 percent of electricity goes to communities, and just 40 percent of the population uses nearly all of this power. This has left 4 million South African households with inadequate electricity, forcing them to cook with whatever fuel is available, including leftover cheap coal. As their homes are not ventilated, residents –- mainly women and children –- breathe the toxic fumes from their cooking fires.

Many of the communities near these projects are actually connected to the grid, but they can't afford to pay for the electricity they need. Electricity rates have risen 137 percent to pay for new power projects like Kusile and Medupi (pdf) and they are expected to rise another 25 percent in the next year. Despite being built in the name of the poor, these projects are actually forcing people off the grid. Industry is the true beneficiary of these new coal projects, as apartheid-era contracts guarantee below-market rates for power while residential users are forced to pay seven times as much for electricity.

After visiting the mine we made our way to Kusile, but we never actually got there. We were stopped by Eskom security on a public road as we approached the construction site. They wanted our names and contact information, which we gave them. Then another security person came and escalated the situation to a whole new level. He demanded that I delete my photos of the plant, which were taken from the public road, and even attempted to confiscate the notes taken by a journalist traveling with us, despite the fact that what we were doing was legal. His manager intervened, but when we left, he followed us in a truck, pulled us over, and threatened to call the police. He continued to follow us down the highway until we were forced far from the plant.

While we were unable to get more than glimpse Kusile, the experience highlighted the tensions over power development here in South Africa -- including the questions of who will profit and who will be forced to pay. But there is hope. Bobby explained how the lessons learned by the communities that fought to stop Kusile and Medupi will inform the ongoing struggle to not only stop new coal development in South Africa, but also communities fighting projects in Mozambique, Kosovo, and India.

The destruction, corruption, and devastation coal brings is the same wherever you go -- only now there is a growing grassroots movement to stop it.

-- article and photos by Nicole Ghio

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