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South African Coal Community Has World’s Worst Air

World’s Worst Air in South African Coal Community
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World’s Worst Air in South African Coal Community

South African Coal Community Has World’s Worst Air
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Patrick Mdluli considered himself to be a healthy person for most of his life.

Then, two years ago, the 35-year-old South African moved to Middleburg, a town in Mpumalanga province. The area is known as the center of South Africa’s coal mining industry.

Mdluli soon began developing health problems, including tuberculosis and disorders related to his nose.

“You go to doctors, they tell you the very same thing. ’Are you living next to a mine?’ Yes, I am. ‘Are you living next to a dumping site?’ Yes, I am.”

In fact, a large coal mine operates right behind Mdluli’s home. Mine workers set off explosives every day. The explosions shake his home and fill its rooms with dust.

Today, Mpumalanga province has some of the most polluted air in the world. That claim comes from the environmental group Greenpeace. Using satellite images, the group found that Mpumalanga is the world’s worst “hot spot” for nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that comes from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal.

The area in and around Middleburg has 12 large coal mines. Mdluli and others living in this part of South Africa say cracks are forming in the walls of their homes because of the powerful, never-ending mining blasts.

But it is their health that suffers most, says Doctor Mohammed Tayob. He leads a local public health center.

Tayob has lived in the area all of his life. He says many new mines have opened there as the nation seeks to profit from coal exports. Now, the area has a higher death rate for young children than other areas. Among adults, it has higher rates for heart attacks and diseases that affect breathing, the doctor said.

While the mines profit, many locals suffer

Although the mines bring in money, locals say the coal companies have done little to improve the lives of community members. Middleburg is a poor town. Many people living there lack services like electricity and running water.

Tayob blames the coal mining industry and poor governance for the current situation. He says the government has failed to enforce environmental laws related to mining.

“One cannot be faulted in thinking, ‘Is there some level of corruption operating in this area as well, where these big boys are getting away with murder, literally?’ They're literally getting away with murder.”

VOA reporters contacted three of the larger mines in the area. None answered a request for comment.

Environmental activist Bafana Hlatshwayo says he and other activists are preparing to appeal to decision-makers at a mining industry gathering in Cape Town. And he wants to bring attention to another of the area’s resources: sunshine.

Hlatshwayo hopes leaders consider bringing solar panel production to Mpumalanga, which means “the place where the sun rises” in the Zulu language.

“We are not saying we want to close down the mines. We must go the renewable energy way.”

I’m Ashley Thompson.

Anita Powell reported this story for VOA News. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

dump - v. to leave or get rid of (something or someone) quickly or without concern

crack - n. a thin line in the surface of something that is broken but not separated into pieces

hot spot - n. a place where there is much danger or fighting

literally - adv. used to stress that a statement or description is true and accurate even though it may be surprising

solar panel - n. a large, flat piece of equipment that uses the sun's light or heat to create electricity