(Bloomberg) -- A South African court ordered the government to take measures to improve the air quality in a key industrial zone, saying it had breached the constitution by failing to crack down on pollution emitted by power plants operated by Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. and refineries owned by Sasol Ltd.

Environmental Affairs Minister Barbara Creecy had a legal obligation to prescribe rules to implement and enforce anti-pollution regulations and had unreasonably delayed in doing so, High Court Judge Colleen Collis said in a ruling handed down in Pretoria, the capital, on Friday. She ordered the matter to be addressed within 12 months and that the new rules provide for penalties for non-compliance and adequate monitoring. 

The so-called Deadly Air case, filed in the court in 2019 by groundWork, an environmental-rights organization, and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action was seen as a key test of the country’s resolve to deal with some of the world’s worst air pollution. 

The so-called Highveld Priority Area, which includes much of northeastern Mpumalanga province and part of the central Gauteng region, is the site of 12 coal-fired Eskom power plants, and an oil refinery and coal-to-fuel plant owned by Sasol. A Greenpeace study conducted in 2018 showed Mpumalanga had the worst nitrogen-dioxide emissions from power plants of any area globally. 

Developmental Needs

The respondents in the case include President Cyril Ramaphosa, Creecy and provincial officials. Creecy argued in court documents that she was acting to curb pollution by Sasol and Eskom, but environmental concerns must be balanced with the country’s developmental needs. 

The plants also emit sulfur dioxide, mercury and fine particulate matter that cause illnesses ranging from asthma to lung cancer and contribute to birth defects, strokes and heart attacks. 

Air pollution caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in the Highveld in 2016, according to a study commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights, which represented groundWork in the case, and was undertaken by Andy Gray, an American atmospheric scientist. 

Together Eskom and Sasol emit more than half of South Africa’s greenhouse gases. The country is the world’s 13th biggest source of the climate-warning emissions, according to Global Carbon Atlas. Eskom produces more than 80% of South Africa’s power from coal-fired plants.

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