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Serious inquiry

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Nov 30, 2011 | From the print edition

Environment ministry categorises offences relating to environmental clearances

imageA committee constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has issued first-of-its-kind guidelines. They seek to categorise non-compliance of conditions attached to environmental clearances as “serious” and “not so serious”.

Released on MoEF’s website on October 31, the guidelines categorise offences for 26 sectors, including mining, thermal power plants, cement, iron and steel and nuclear power.

They are based on the deliberations of four meetings and analyses of over 200 clearance letters. The MoEF-constituted committee was set up following the recommendations of an expert committee formed in 2009, headed by J M Mauskar, special secretary with MoEF.

Plethora of conditions

Environmental clearance comprises general and specific conditions. As per the guidelines, if a project proponent fails to comply with any of the specific conditions, the omission would be considered a serious offence. For instance, a coal-based thermal power plant not using flyash for making mainly bricks and cement in a time-bound manner would be a serious offence.

Non-compliance with certain general conditions will also be considered a serious offence, such as non-installation of equipments that reduce pollution. If a developer does not comply with the state policy of resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected people, he can also be termed a serious offender.

Not-so-serious offences have been defined for each of the 26 sectors separately. All the not-so-serious category conditions will become serious in case they are not complied with or rectified within six months. This will be assessed during successive bi-annual inspection reports by the state authorities.

For the mining sector, non-compliance with more than 40 per cent of all the clearance conditions has been categorised as not-so-serious offence. If a project proponent does not concretise roads in mine lease areas or regularly sprinkles water on the roads, he will be termed a not-so-serious offender (see box).

Violations categorised for focus sectors
Sector Serious offences Not-so-serious offences
Mining
  • Intersecting groundwater table
  • Non-installation of bag filters and water sprinkling system to check fugitive emissions
  • Carrying out beneficiation of ore without obtaining clearances
  • Not taking appropriate mitigative measures to prevent pollution of nearby water bodies
  • Carrying out blasting at night
  • Not concretising roads or installing water sprinkling systems along the roads to check fugitive emissions
Nuclear power
  • Not monitoring radioactive pollutants in the air and discharged water as per CPCB standards
  • Not managing the radioactive waste as per the standards
  • Not having disaster management and emergency preparedness plans in place
  • Not treating the non-radioactive wastewater from the plant premises and reusing/recycling the treated effluent
  • Not limiting the noise level below 75 decibels
Thermal power
  • Non-installation of electrostatic precipitator to curb particulate emission
  • Non-installation of dust suppression system in coal and ash handling areas to check fugitive emissions
  • Not utilising flyash in a time-bound manner
  • Withdrawing more water from a river than the stipulated requirement
  • Not monitoring the ground level concentration of sulphur dioxide and mercury
  • Not monitoring groundwater around the ash pond area used for disposal of flyash
  • Not controlling the temperature of hot water from the condenser before sending it to receiving surface water

The two conditions have been put in place to control fugitive emissions. Fugitive emissions occur primarily due to poor handling of ores; they are often windblown. At the same time, the guidelines categorise non-installation of two fugitive emission control devices, bag filters and water sprinkling system, as a serious offence. B Sengupta, former member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and head of the MoEF committee, gave reason for the categorisation. “Non installation of bag filters will have greater impact in terms of air pollution. But fugitive emissions, as a result of non-concretised roads, will be restricted to the plant area,” he says. Similar clash exists on the categorisation of parameters like handling and storing of solid waste.

The committee has also given recommendations on actions that should be taken in case of violations. These are similar to the existing ones. The Centre or state government may serve a show-cause notice under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA)of 1986, irrespective of the nature of the offence. Further action will depend on the industry’s response. Repeated failure to comply will be considered a serious violation. In case of immediate danger to public life and property, a closure order will be issued without issuing any notice. “Immediate danger could be not meeting the ambient air, water or toxic waste standards notified by CPCB,” says Sengupta. Instead of the notice, a stricter penal action with higher monetary fines is needed, says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of Delhi’s non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.

The aim behind developing these guidelines is that they would enable more effective monitoring of conditions attached to clearances, says Sengupta. At present, ambiguity exists in the conditions. “In addition to the guidelines, ‘model’ clearance conditions should be chalked out that will make monitoring easier and more effective,” he adds. The committee has suggested ways to improve the clearance conditions. They include effective waste management and development of sulphur dioxide standards for thermal power plants.

The civil society has given a mixed reaction to the categorisation. Ramesh Sharma of Ekta Parishad, a non-profit working on land and pollution matters, says, “At present, the authorities do not take action on their own. They work only after the affected people complain.” This is a major lacuna in the system that has not been addressed in the guidelines. “However, if the guidelines are accepted, they will act as a vital tool to nail the government and corporates and making them accountable for pollution,” he adds. Sengupta says, “The categorisation of violations will serve as a guideline for officials who inspect industries.” But this alone would not result in effective monitoring. “Monitoring suffers because of poor manpower. Moreover, the provision of putting the offender in jail is not used, which may have served as a great deterrent,” he adds.

According to Bhushan, the categorisation will give leeway to companies to flout clearance conditions. “They may not take the not-so-serious offences seriously,” he says. To ensure effective monitoring, manpower shortage and management systems in state pollution control boards and MoEF regional offices need to be addressed first, he says. Sengupta agrees. Monitoring needs to be strengthened quickly. As suggested by the Mauskar committee, monitoring should be outsourced to premier organisations like the Bureau of Energy Efficiency and the Indian School of Mines for their respective fields of expertise.

Shilpa Chohan, a Supreme Court lawyer, finds the categorisation surprising. “EPA does not provide for any categorisation of failure or contravention that may have been committed under the Act. It should be left to the court of justice to decide how to penalise offenders,” she says. How can project proponents be let off if they are not complying? she asks. A senior MoEF official says, “We are neutral towards the guidelines. It is the duty of non-profits and the public to comment.” Depending on the comments, the guidelines will be mod ified, adds the official who refused to be named.

The guidelines are open for public comments till December 15.

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