India’s Minamata

Singrauli, the powerhouse of India with massive coal reserves and many thermal power plants, should have been prosperous. But it is poor and polluted. People complain of unexplained ailments. Non-profit Centre for Science and Environment decided to investigate and found that mercury, a deadly toxin in coal, is slowly entering people’s homes, food, water And even blood. Sugandh Juneja reports on the lab findings and how mercury affects people and environment

 
By Sugandh Juneja
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

IndiaÔÇÖs Minamata

Saraju Nisha, 60, has developed white patches on skin. She lives in Chilika Daad village of SonbhadraSaraju Nisha sits at the door of her house, about 500 metres from a mountain of coal mine waste in Chilika Daad village in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district. The 60-year-old former miner is in deep pain. For the past five years, she has been suffering from stomachache, joint pain, numbness and excessive salivation. What’s troubling her more is her skin which has discoloured. “All this is due to the overburden mountain created by the Khadia coal mine of Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL),” she says.

The company’s waste, or overburden, is at an altitude higher than the village. In August last year, rains brought all the waste down to the village. “At 2 am, we found ourselves waist deep in water. Our houses were destroyed and cattle died,” says Saraju. This is an annual phenomenon, says Manonit, another resident. Health problems like those of Saraju are common in the district. Cases of stillbirths, menstrual irregularities, sterility, hyper-pigmentation, anaemia and high blood pressure are high in the region, say people. “We have been complaining to the district magistrate and the police since 2008 but no action has been taken,” he says.

Chilika Daad is a colony of people displaced twice because of developmental activities in the Singrauli region, comprising Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. The region has huge coal reserves and many thermal plants. When a dam was constructed on the Rihand, a tributary of the Sone, in the 1950s, residents were resettled from Renukut to Shaktinagar village. They were resettled to Chilika Daad when NTPC Limited started building its Shaktinagar plant in 1975. They could be displaced the third time as NCL plans to expand its Khadia mine. “When we approach NCL with our problem, it shrugs off responsibility by saying the colony belongs to NTPC. Officials at NTPC blame NCL, saying it is theirs,” says Manonit. Chilika Daad residents know the coal mines and the thermal plant are the reasons behind their ailments. What they do not know is exactly how it affects them.

Mercury is one of the natural, and perhaps the most harmful, components of coal. During combustion at temperature above 1,100°C, it vapourises. Given the large quantity of coal burned in thermal plants, considerable amount of mercury is released into the atmosphere. Some of it cools down and condenses while passing through the plant’s boiler and air pollution control system and enters the environment through soil and water. It also enters the environment through run-off from coal mines. In humans, mercury can cause several chronic diseases and death.

How much mercury does coal contain? The answer varies from region to region. The Central Pollution Control Board analysed 11 coal samples from Singrauli and found mercury concentration in coal ranging between 0.09 parts per million (ppm) and 0.487 ppm. In 2011, Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had found 0.15 ppm mercury in coal at Anpara village in Sonbhadra. It is estimated that a 1,000 MW thermal power plant is emitting at least 500 kg of mercury every year in Singrauli.

In 2011, people approached CSE to study the pollution and health problems in Sonbhadra. The non-profit collected samples of water, soil, cereals and fish from the district, and blood, hair and nails of people living there. Results showed that high levels of mercury have made way into the environment.

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