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Your Tax Dollars at Work: A Giant Coal Plant in South Africa

Officials say a new US-backed coal plant outside Johannesburg will be a boon to the community. Locals beg to differ.

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 7:00 AM EST

In this community, the mining company often dumps piles of "bottom of the barrel" coal--the stuff they can't sell--for residents to use. Many homes use the coal for cooking and heat.Photos by Kate Sheppard

Earlier this week, I traveled to South Africa's Mpumalanga province, the center of the country's coal industry and the home of one of the newest coal-fired power plants, Kusile. Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that their tax dollars have been used to underwrite Kusile, but they are. And when completed, the 4,800-megawatt plant will be among the largest in the world.

EMalahleni, the municipality in which Kusile is located, means "place of coal" in Zulu. Ninety-three percent of South Africa's power comes frmo coal, and much of that is produced and burned in Mpumalanga.* While much of it is burned in the region's 11 power plants, 25 percent of it is exported to other countries. South Africa is the fifth-largest producer of coal in the world, and 80 percent of its mining takes place in this province.

A significant chunk of Kusile's upfront financing—$805 million—came from a direct loan from the Export-Import Bank of the United States to Eskom, South Africa's state-owned electric power utility. Construction on the plant began in 2007 and is expected to be completed in 2015. In April 2011, ExIm agreed to provide the loan to the plant to help ensure its construction. Kusile will be the 12th coal-fired power plant in this area, which lies to the east of Johannesburg.

Construction on Kusile began in 2007, and is expected to be completed in 2015. When finished, it will be one of the largest power plants in the world.The Kusile power plantThe region is also home to the Sasol plant in Secunda, which is both the largest coal-to-liquids plant and the largest point source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The plant produces 160,000 barrels of fuel from coal every day, which is used to power buses, planes, and automobiles in the country.

The Sasol plant in Secunda was the second coal-to-liquids plant built in South Africa. The first was built in a town called Sasolburg in 1955. The Secunda plant was constructed the early 1980s, and is the largest coal liquefaction plant in the world.The Sasol coal-to-liquids plant in Secunda

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The South Africa-based environmental group Groundwork reported that in a single four-month period last year, the country exceeded its ambient air pollution standards 570 times—mostly due to the emissions from plants in this region. The national air quality law, which was passed in 2004, is actually pretty good, says Groundwork director Bobby Peek, "but government doesn't have the capacity to enforce it." There are fines for violating the law, but in an area with numerous plants like Mpumalanga, it can often be hard to peg the violations to one particular plant.

Peek was my guide earlier this week for a trip to the region. The first plant we see is the Kendal power station, also owned by Eskom. Its six generators have made it the largest station in the country since it was completed in 1993, but Kusile will be even bigger.

Caption TK?As we head away from Johannesburg, he opens the car window. "You'll start smelling sulfur now," he says. We're driving through cornfields, the air quality in the region is more like that of a big city.

Down the road, we meet up with our local guide for the day, a 27-year-old woman who lives near one of the region's many mines that feed all those coal plants. She, her three siblings, and her two small children live in a small house made of wood and mud not far from where a new mine was opened in February 2010. She's lived there since 1997, but now the blasts from the mine are causing her house to crack, slowly. She's nervous about me using her name in my article, or that of her community. It's a small place, and these topics can be sensitive.

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