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Environmental Law 10 - Air Quality

Air quality – industry, agriculture and day to day activities impact on the quality of the air we breathe. Air quality is related to global warming, health problems such as asthma, and generally unpleasant living conditions. What laws protect this resource?

Air pollution in urban centres, particularly large centres focussed on industry, has been linked to human health impacts. Many areas of the South Africa are not conducive to a healthy environment for people; the burden of health impacts associated with polluted ambient air falls most heavily on the poor. Air pollution carries a high social, economic and environmental cost that is seldom borne by the polluter and atmospheric emissions of ozone-depleting substances, greenhouse gases and other substances have deleterious effects on the environment locally, regionally and globally. Emitted pollutant gases have the capacity to be transported over large distances, sometimes many hundreds of kilometres, and may give rise to depositions in other countries. For example, pesticides have been found in Antarctica(!).

Air pollution is linked to human activities as well as natural processes (such as veld fires) and natural events. For example, when Krakatoa, a volcano in the East Indies, blew up in 1883, the debris and dust it hurled into the air spread around the globe, darkening daytime skies for hundreds of miles. Krakatoa dust, suspended in the atmosphere, produced spectacularly ruddy sunsets and sunrises the world over for months after the blast. However, natural events are part of the natural cycle, whilst human industry is not and the long term effects of man-made pollution are hypothesized to be causing the demise of our world through depletion of the ozone layer and global warming.

In South Africa, the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act (Act No. 45 of 1965) was first enacted to provide for the prevention of the pollution of the atmosphere, for the establishment of a National Air Pollution Advisory Committee, and for related matters. In excess of 211 Government Notices have been published in terms of this Act, dealing with specific towns and general matters. This Act makes provision for the control of noxious or offensive gases, atmospheric pollution by smoke, dust control, air pollution fumes emitted by vehicles and general provisions. For example, no person is permitted to carry out any emission causing processes involving tar without a registration certificate authorizing him to carry out that process on any specific premises. No facilities involving tar processes may be erected without such a certificate on any property.

The National Environmental Management Air Quality Act (Act 39 of 2004) then reformed the law regulating air quality in order to protect the environment by providing reasonable measures for the prevention of pollution and ecological degradation and for securing ecologically sustainable development while promoting justifiable economic and social development. The Act also provides for national norms and standards regulating air quality monitoring, management and control by all spheres of government. An atmospheric emission licence is required in terms of this Act.

The greatest amount of air pollution comes from heavy industry. Currently, industrial emissions are regulated by the Chief Air Pollution Control Officer (CAPCO) of the DEAT. Registration certificates for individual industries are issued by CAPCO, which state the actual quantity of particulate emissions that may be emitted as well as the level of emission allowed. On a positive note, South Africa has almost completely phased out the use of ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and carbon tetrachloride. Air pollution also relates to agriculture and the timber industry and strict regulations pertain to the production of dust such as sawdust stemming from sawmills. In terms of the latter, the impacts of sawdust on water courses can be profound and sawmills are not permitted within close proximity of streams unless contained within an enclosed space. Agricultural processing plants, such as animal feed mills, also have to adhere to strict regulations in terms of dust creation and non-compliance can be taken further with the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs.

Much of our rural air pollution comes from inappropriate burning regimes and the use of firewood as fuel in poorer areas. These impacts should be addressed through the provision of electrical power and the concomitant production of ‘cleaner’ fuel through solar, wind and water power. Power stations are a major source of global air pollution. The next article will deal with a more ambiguous form of pollution - activities that impact on the aesthetics and character of an area.

The author will not be held responsible for misinterpretation of the law, and strongly recommends that readers consult their local DAEA branch for clarification.

  1. Afzelia Environmental Consultants cc
  2. Tel: +27(0) 31 303 2835
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  Tel: +27 (31) 303 2835
  Fax: +27 (86) 692 2547
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  Tel: +27 (31) 303 2835
  Fax: +27 (86) 692 2547
  Map »