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.