Air quality impacts of the New Largo coal mine

Air pollution is a major threat to the health of humans and ecosystems worldwide. Particulate matter (PM2.5) in particular is a deadly air pollutant with a wide range of negative health impacts. In Africa, air pollution is the second leading cause of premature mortality, exceeded only by AIDS in South Africa, and a major portion of air pollution is attributed to the country’s reliance on coal, as this country is the 7th largest coal producer in the world. Coal mining leads to the emissions of PM2.5 through material handling, wind erosion, drilling, blasting, and crushing.

In South Africa, annual mean PM2.5 concentrations typically range from 10-30 μg m-3. Consequently, many South Africans are exposed to PM2.5 concentrations which exceed the annual average concentration guidelines of the national government (20 μg m-3) and World Health Organisation (5 μg m-3). Overall,  PM2.5 contributes to approximately 25,800 premature deaths each year in South Africa. These premature deaths, combined with other non-fatal illnesses caused by PM2.5, cost the South African economy USD 15 billion each year, which is equivalent to ZAR 250 billion and  5.2% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. 

Over 90% of South Africa’s electricity demand is met by burning coal. The majority of this coal is both mined and burnt in the northern provinces of South Africa. These activities lead to the emissions of PM2.5 into the atmosphere, and in South Africa, energy production from coal is the single largest source of PM2.5. In the northern provinces of South Africa, air quality guideline concentrations are being exceeded for both PM2.5 and PM10. Recently, the government has been sued due to failing to reduce the toxic air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld priority area in accordance with its air quality management plan.

In this study, CREA looked at the New Largo coal mine, which includes two pits in operation (Pits D and H) and one pit that is due to commence in the future (Pit F). In the original plan that was approved by regulatory authorities, Pit F was due to commence operations after 2045, and coal would be transported to Kusile Power Station via a conveyor belt system. However, New Largo has recently proposed a new plan for Pit F, which includes bringing the start date forward to 2024, and instead transporting coal to Kusile Power Station via trucks.

Map of  annual-mean PM2.5 (μg m-3) measured from satellites, overlaid with the value from a surface measurement station at Zibulo Colliery. New Largo coal mine pits shown by black crosses; existing industrial sources of air pollution shown by blue crosses; regions particularly sensitive to the effects of air pollution shown by green crosses.

In 2022, the New Largo coal mine commissioned Golder Associates Africa (Pty) Lt to perform an environmental impact assessment (EIA) related to proposed changes at Pit F, which evaluated the existing levels of air pollution in the region, quantified the impacts of Pit F, and concluded that the region suffers from poor air quality and that the proposed changes  at Pit F at New Largo would worsen the situation. However, the assessment likely underestimated the projected air quality impacts.

CREA has therefore carried out this study and found that acceleration of the New Largo coal mine will exacerbate the air quality crisis in the region, leading to even larger burdens on public health and the economy.

Key findings

  • New Largo coal mine, in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, plans to greatly accelerate the timetable for mining at Pit F and make other proposed changes at its existing pits D and H.
  • This region suffers from severe air pollution, due to multiple coal mines and coal-fired power plants, including Kusile and Kendal Power Stations. 
  • In the previous environmental impact assessment (EIA) conducted on the New Largo coal mine, Golder (2022) evaluated the impacts of Pit F on air pollution levels, but made several assumptions that lead to underestimates in the air pollution impacts, and they did not quantify the impacts of air pollution on human health and the economy. 
  • In this study, we quantified how Pit F, as well as Pits D and H, affect air quality, public health, and the economy, using data, tools, and methodology which are well-established, scientifically robust, and used globally by scientists and regulators.
  • Under the flawed assumptions used in the previous EIA, we find that Pit F would lead to annual mean PM2.5 concentrations of 0.2 μg m-3 in local communities and 0.01  μg m-3 in communities further afield. 
  • Over the lifetime of Pit F, the PM2.5 concentrations under the assumptions of the previous EIA  would lead to an additional public health burden including 23 (17–30) premature deaths, 71 (42–100) emergency room visits due to asthma, 31 (15–33) preterm births, and 17,000 (14,000–20,000) work absences. 
  •  Overall, this health burden would cost the South African economy a projected ZAR 400 (300–500) million, which is equivalent to USD 24 (18–31) million.
  • While Pit F of the New Largo coal mine has a major impact on air quality, public health, and the economy even under the flawed assumptions of the previous EIA, the impacts increase even further if we test more realistic assumptions or also consider the impacts of all three pits at New Largo.
  • For instance, if more realistic emission estimates are used, Pit F could lead to annual mean PM2.5 concentrations of 10 μg m-3 in local communities and 0.5 μg m-3 in communities further afield. 
  • Over its lifetime, the emissions from Pit F would be responsible for a projected 920 (670–1,200) premature deaths, 2,900 (1,700–4,100) emergency room visits due to asthma, 1,270 (620–1,350) preterm births, 714,000 (608,000–321,000) work absences, and a health burden equalling  ZAR 15.8 (11.6–20.5) billion, or USD 960 (710–1,250) million.  
  • If we consider emissions from all three Pits F, D, and H, emissions from New Largo could lead to annual mean PM2.5 concentrations in excess of 10 μg m-3 in local communities, 1,408 (1,035–1,837) premature deaths, and a health burden totalling  ZAR 24.3 (17.9–31.5) billion, or USD 1.5 (1.1–1.9) billion.

Jamie Kelly; Erika Uusivuori; Paolo Gonzalez; Lauri Myllyvirta; Vera Tattari

South Africa