Thermal power plants are still not disposing of fly ash properly, NGT cases show

These cases show it is imperative to bridge the gap between legal mandates and their execution

By Aishani Agarwal, Anubha Aggarwal
Published: Wednesday 20 December 2023
A breach in the fly ash dyke of Reliance’s Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh on April 10, 2020. File photo

Despite the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change’s (MoEFCC) 2021 notification mandating 100 per cent utilisation of fly ash by coal-fired thermal power plants, several cases have been registered with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) alleging its improper disposal.

In April 2023, failed compliance and inaction by coal power plants regarding pollution from fly ash slurry were brought to the attention of the NGT. In the matter of Mohan Singh vs State of Haryana, the applicant told the tribunal that the Panipat Thermal Plant in Haryana, owned by the state, failed to scientifically manage fly ash and its effluents.

The failure caused damage to the adjoining agricultural fields. As compensation, the power plant provided tube wells to the project-affected parties. It is alleged that where the state was prompt in severing the electricity connections to these tube wells due to non-payment of electricity bills, the slurry from the plant continued to overflow into the fields.

Read more: Fly ash breach incidents on the rise amid proposal on deadline extension: CSE

The NGT ordered the Haryana Pollution Control Board to instruct the power plant to take appropriate corrective action after consulting with other stakeholders.

Similarly, in another case filed before the NGT in May 2023, a non-operational power plant was found to be in breach of its obligation to manage fly ash. 

In the matter of Ajay Shrivastava vs State of Haryana, it was brought to the tribunal’s attention that Faridabad Thermal Power Station, unit of Haryana Power Generation Corporation Limited, was in violation of MoEFCC’s Aravalli notification dated May 7, 1992.

The Aravalli notification restricts certain activities that cause environmental degradation in a specific area of the Aravalli range. The court observed that the thermal power station did not present any concrete plan to lift coal ash from the ash dyke.

The timeline presented to the court to carry out the safe lifting of fly ash from the dyke was found to be too long. The NGT also noted that the project proponent has not carried out the plantation proposed for fly ash stabilisation.

The lack of seriousness of the power plants to manage the fly ash despite the court’s intervention cannot be more evident than in the matter of Ashwani Kumar Dubey vs Union of India. The NGT formed a committee in August 2018 while hearing the matter to assess the damage caused by thermal power plants located in Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh and Sonebhadra district in Uttar Pradesh.

These plants were found to have discharged mercury beyond prescribed limits and causing various ailments to the inhabitants. The plants also caused pollution due to the storage of fly ash beyond the capacity of the dyke, its transportation by trucks without any safeguards and its improper disposal. 

Subsequently, the court directed the power plants to install monitoring systems, comply with timelines, and furnish performance guarantees. The NGT also constituted an oversight committee to oversee the implementation of its direction for the power plants. 

The oversight committee highlighted the illegal overflow of ash ponds and emphasised the need for precautions regarding red mud disposal in its submission to the court later in December 2018. 

Again, on January 18, 2022, NGT took cognisance of eight similar matters together regarding pollution from coal thermal power plants in Singrauli and Sonebhadra. The NGT highlighted issues of unscientific handling of fly ash, among others, by these plants. 

Read more: Vedanta’s red mud pond leaks into Vamsadhara river

A joint committee reported significant gaps in fly ash management, prompting recommendations for remedial actions. The recommendations of the committee were accepted and the tribunal directed the constitution of a Fly Ash Management and Utilisation Mission

Recently, the NGT allowed the parties concerned  in the aforementioned case to obtain a copy of the recommendations of the committee and file their objections before the Supreme Court as an appeal against the January 2022 order. The objections were filed in the Supreme Court based on the violation of principles of natural justice, which is a law of nature concisely meaning ‘duty to act fairly’. 

The principle that is said to be violated in this case is that an equal opportunity to be heard was not given by the NGT to the power plants.

Despite subsequent directions and oversight committee interventions in this matter, compliance remains elusive. The recurring non-compliance of orders is a matter of concern and does not set a very strong precedent. 

These cases show how it is imperative to bridge the gap between legal mandates and their execution. This shows that there are a myriad of challenges that the NGT needs to overcome to have greater efficiency. 

NGT was established as a stride forward in environmental jurisprudence. Steps need to be taken to ensure that it stands true to its purpose by having a strong compliance system, among others. 

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