The amendments to Air Quality Act (AQ) that came into force on 19 May 2014 have introduced a welcomed streamlining of environmental applications, especially as South Africa is often criticised as being overregulated due to the number of environmental approvals required from different governmental authorities. 

This is according to Gareth Howard, Candidate Attorney at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, who notes, “At present, metropolitan and district municipalities are the competent authorities to issue AELs for atmospheric emission activities listed under the AQA. 

“The Minister of Environmental Affairs or the Provincial Environmental Departments' authorised officials are empowered to issue waste management licences (WMLs) for waste management activities and environmental authorisations (EAs) for certain listed activities (Listed EA Activities).  The requirements for WMLs and EAs fall under two other separate pieces of environmental legislation,” he says.  

Several approvals may therefore be required for an operation from various government authorities.

“Where an air emission activity is also classified as a Listed EA Activity and a waste management activity, the Minister may now issue an integrated licence if she is also the competent authority to issue EAs and WMLs under the other environmental legislation,” Howard explains. 

“However,” he says “importantly for parties required to apply for an AEL under the AQA, the amendments provide that the Minister and the relevant municipality may agree that any AEL application be dealt with either by the Minister or relevant municipality.  It is therefore important for parties applying for an AEL to ensure that they apply to the correct authority.”   

Howard says that whenever a municipality fails to take a decision on an AEL application within the prescribed time period, the applicant may apply to the Minister or Provincial Environmental Departments' authorised officials, as the case may be, to take the decision.  This may ensure that there is not a backlog of applications for AELs at metropolitan and district municipalities.

“In line with the notion of ensuring integrated environmental management, the amendments to the AQA require that an integrated EA may only be issued if the relevant provisions of all the relevant environmental legislation for EAs have all been complied with,” he says.

Howard notes, “The amendments therefore give further clarity as to the interaction between applications for EAs and the granting of AELs.  Streamlining of these applications is important to ensure that all environmental impacts are considered before an AEL is granted and an AEL application is not assessed in isolation.  The amendments now require that the decision maker must take specific cognisance when considering whether to grant an AEL of any applicable environmental impact assessment conducted in an application for an EA and the decision taken.

“The amendments discussed above arguably ensure the long-awaited streamlining of competencies between various state organs and stand to introduce a range of benefits, including a less arduous bureaucratic system generally applicable to environmental approvals under South Africa's environmental law,” he adds.