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

Though fly ash breach incidents have become more frequent in recent years, the deadline for legacy ash utilisation is being considered for extension by another 10 years in the latest draft notification by the government

By Sugandha Arora Sardana
Published: Thursday 17 June 2021
A fly ash breach incident in Singrauli last year

On June 15, 2021, yet another fly ash breach incident was reported from the Korba district of Chhattisgarh. The breach occurred at the NTPC Korba Power Plant and ACB India power plant, which led to an outcry among local people living in the nearby area.

NTPC Korba is an old plant of capacity 2,600 megawatt (MW). Its five units were commissioned between the years 1983 and 1989. Though an old plant, it is being run on a plant load factor of more than 95 per cent.

Running at almost full capacity, the plant is generating huge amounts of ash but is not able to effectively utilise it. Its average ash utilisation in the past decade has remained only 40 per cent, leading to a huge pile up in its ash ponds. 

In the last two years, several major ash dyke breach incidents have been reported from the North Chennai Power Station in Tamil Nadu; the Sasan power plant, NTPC Vindhyachal and Essar Power Plant in Madhya Pradesh; NTPC Talcher in Odisha; Bokaro Power Plant in Jharkhand and Khaparkheda & Koradi Power Plants in Maharashtra. Sudden ash flooding of nearby settlements has led to the loss of lives on some occasions as well.

These incidents have happened even though many power plants have reported a higher fly ash utilisation percentage in the last few years to the Central Electricity Authority. However, with such incidents on the rise, the ground reality about ash management appears to be completely different and grim.

A big disappointment

Despite such incidents, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change came up with a new draft fly ash notification this year which further pushes the deadline.

This draft notification introduces the concept of a 3-5 year compliance cycle to achieve the target of 100 per cent fly ash utilisation by the end of cycle. What is more worrying is that the draft notification also gives an extension of 10 years to power plants to progressively utilise their legacy ash.

Giving a leeway of another 10 years for legacy ash and simply extending the deadline every time will only make things worse. The problem of legacy ash has popped up only because many plants continued to not comply with the previous notifications year after year and failed to manage their ash.

The sector failed miserably even in the case of meeting the 2015 emission norms. The deadline to meet emission norms has simply been extended every time instead of taking any firm action against non-complying plants in the past. The extension of deadlines year after year sets a wrong example. Plants will continue to pollute and will not take the regulations seriously in such a scenario.  

Other issues

Apart from this, there are several other loopholes and complexities observed in the draft notification. The draft mentions:

Every coal- or lignite-based thermal power plant shall install dedicated dry fly ash silos for storage of at least 16 hours of ash, based on installed capacity.

A storage capacity of such limited duration will only increase the issue of fly ash disposal in plants that are not able to clear and utilise their ash immediately.

The draft notification introduces the penalty mechanism for the first time for collection of fines. The responsibility of fine collection is put on the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). But how effective this deterrence mechanism will be is still a big question.

Last year, in its February 12 hearing, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) came out harshly on power plants. It asked CPCB to determine and impose environmental compensation or fines on non-complying power plants that were in violation of the 2017 deadline.

Following this order, the CPCB had issued compensation or penalty notices to various non-complying power plants. But, according to the compliance report submitted to the NGT by CPCB in September 2020, only two had paid the compensation.

As many as 102 of the 112 power plants had sought exemptions from paying fines. Also, the fines collected will be utilised by CPCB to safely dispose the un-utilised ash. But how CPCB will carry out this task is again a big question. 

The draft evens mentions returning back 90 per cent the penalty amount collected in a first compliance cycle, if the power plant achieves 100 per cent utilisation in a subsequent three year compliance cycle. With such a weak penalty mechanism in place, there cannot be any improvement.

With such complexities in the draft notification in terms of progressive utilisation of ash, introduction of compliance cycles and imposition of fines and their return, the on-ground implementation might prove to be a tough task for regulatory authorities.

The draft fly ash 2021 notification is the fifth amendment to the 1999 fly ash notification. The notification has gone through several reforms in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2016 in order to achieve the target of 100 per cent fly ash utilisation.

Yet, 22 years since the notification was introduced, 40-50 per cent power plants have been in non-compliance of achieving the target of 100 per cent utilisation. Plants that do not even utilise 30-40 per cent of their generated ash, also exist.

Currently, nearly 1.6 billion tonnes of ash is lying in ash ponds across the country. The legacy ash issue is particularly severe in Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. These are states that have accumulated the most ash during the last decade. 

According to a recent analysis by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, just six states in India together accounted for 76 per cent of the total residual ash from the power sector, that piled up between the years 2010 and 2019. These states were Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha.

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