In October, they even rolled out the green carpet for Dr Thuli Mdluli outside the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Pretoria head office, clutching petitions in their hands.

But Mdluli, the national air-quality officer, is confident she has made the right decision to approve almost all of Eskom’s applications to postpone compliance with minimum emission standards, which was announced last week.

However, environmental groups like the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) have slammed the decision as “slapdash” and showing a “complete disregard” for the department’s constitutional responsibility to protect the health of South Africans.

The CER, Greenpeace Africa, Earthlife Africa Joburg and groundWork indicated they may now launch a legal challenge.

However, Mdluli disagrees with their view.

“Our experience is that industry really wants to comply,” she told the Saturday Star, the Independent on Saturday’s sister paper.

“They have given us compliance road maps, which they are committed to following. It is not a licence to pollution in the future.”

The standards require Eskom to meet existing plant standards by April this year, and stricter new plant standards by April 1, 2020.

“Some of these power stations will be decommissioned shortly,” argues Mdluli. “Would it make financial sense to invest billions in a station that will be decommissioned in eight years?

“They won’t get off scot-free. We didn’t take this decision lightly. We considered the views of NGOs quite carefully… We have not granted industry a licence to pollute above what is reasonable,” says Mdluli, pointing out how air-quality problems are not limited to industrial sources of pollution.

But research has shown that, if Eskom does not comply with the standards, it could cause 20 000 premature deaths over the remaining life of its power plants, including those of 1 600 children.

She has not had the opportunity “to engage this methodology”, counters Mdluli. “It’s very difficult to isolate the impacts and say this person died because of Eskom.

“I don’t doubt their pollution causes health impacts – that’s why they are so strongly regulated – but what is not certain is the number of people who died specifically from this pollution source.”

Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior global coal campaigner at Greenpeace, based in Poland – who has studied Eskom’s impacts by year, facility and pollution – worries that all requests for non-compliance with emission standards for sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide have been allowed, when most health impacts are associated with these toxic particles.