New green clearance procedures make coal mine expansion easy

MoEF office memorandums do away with public hearing for coal mine expansion and delink forest clearance from environment clearance for ultra mega power projects in ‘violate forests’

By Soundaram Ramanathan
Published: Wednesday 12 February 2014


The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) recently issued three office memorandums relating to procedures for environmental clearances. Out of the three, two are related to coal mining and ultra mega power projects. The third one is regarding categorization of projects in the EIA Notification of 2006.

The procedure for one time expansion of coal mines has been simplified and the forest and environment clearance process for ultra mega power projects has been delinked from forest clearance via these memorandums.

According to the office memorandum dated January 7, 2013, “small” coal mines with production capacity less than 8 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) which are to be expanded by half its capacity for one time, need not go through public hearing process a second time for environmental clearance, provided the process uses the existing technology and there is no additional mine lease area involved. This would mean that a 7 MTPA coal mine can expand to 10.5 MTPA without a public hearing.

Public hearing is a prime requisite for environmental clearance. A relaxation to this process for expansion projects of coal mine was brought about in 2012. But at that time, only 0.25 MTPA additions were given public hearing exemptions with other conditions remaining the same as in the new office memorandum.

In 2012, environmental activists strongly opposed these public hearing exemptions saying any change in the capacity of a mine impacts the ecology of the area. A capacity increase of the mine would mean increase in overburden, increase in transport in the area and increase ground water usage among other things. Exemption from public hearing would mean overlooking such critical impacts on the environment and people, activists argued.

The unanswered question on violate forests

Environmental clearances are granted to projects with captive coal block only if its captive coal block receives both environment and forest clearance via an office memorandum dated April 19, 2012. A developer can apply for forest clearance and environmental clearance simultaneously. However, environmental clearances would be granted only once the forest clearance is received by the project, as per an office memorandum issued by the ministry on September 9, 2011. The idea of granting forest clearance before environmental clearance was to ensure that critical impacts of losing a forest are addressed first However, the new office memorandum dated December 30, 2013 allows grant of environmental clearance to ultra mega power projects (UMPP) even before forest clearance to its captive coal block. In such a situation, this office memorandum raises a question: Is MoEF assuming that forest clearance will be granted to all those projects which fall in the violate category, irrespective of the impacts of forest loss?

UMPPs are large projects (4,000 MW each, involving an estimated investment of about Rs 16,000 crore) planned by the Ministry of Power, in association with the Central Electricity Authority and Power Finance Corporation Ltd. with the aim of providing power for all by 2012. Sixteen such projects are envisaged by the power ministry.

According to the new office memorandum, a UMPP with a captive coal block will be considered for environmental clearance without linking it to forest clearance, if its coal block does not fall in the inviolate forest area list of the ministry. Violate areas are a category of forests where forestland diversions are permitted and inviolate areas are those where mining is not allowed. Whether the coal block falls in the inviolate or violate area will be decided based on the guidelines of MoEF that await approval. Many civil society organisations have criticized the violate/inviolate guidelines, saying it treats many areas which ought to be inviolate as violate.

Categorisation of projects aids piecemeal clearances

MoEF has further categorised its category B projects in the notification as B1 and B2 through an office memorandum dated December 24, 2013. EIA Notification, 2006 has three categories of projects – Category A, which are high pollution impact projects which are approved by the Union ministry; category B, which are medium pollution impact projects, approved by the state; and category C, which are projects that have little or no impacts and don’t require an environmental clearance. Earlier, category B projects were divided into B1 and B2 by the State level Expert Appraisal Committees (SEACs), based on MoEF guidelines. Projects which required an environment impact assessment (EIA) and public hearing were categorised as Category B1 and they went to the SEIAA (State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority) for approval and those which did not require an EIA were categorised as B2 and were cleared by SEAC.

The new classification of category B projects has been done by the ministry, based on a report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). The new categorisation given out is as follows:

S.No. of Schedule Activities Category B2 Category B1
1 (d) Thermal power plants Thermal Power plants based on coal/lignite/naptha and gas of capacity < or = 5 MW Thermal Power plants based on coal/lignite/ naptha and gas of capacity >5 MW and <500 MW
2 (b) Mineral beneficiation The mineral beneficiation activity listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’, with throughput < or = 20,000 TPA, involving only physical beneficiation All other mineral beneficiation activity falling in the Schedule as Category ‘B’
3(a) Metallurgical industries (ferrous & non-ferrous) All non toxic secondary metallurgical processing industries involving operation of furnaces only, such as induction and electric arc furnaces, and cupola with capacity > 30,000 TPA but < 60,000 TPA provided that such projects are located within the notified Industrial Estates All other non toxic secondary metallurgical processing industries falling in the Schedule as Category ‘B’
3(b) Cement Plants All stand-alone grinding units listed in the schedule as Category ‘B’ subject to the condition that transportation of raw material and finished products shall be primarily* through railways All stand-alone grinding units listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’ where the transportation of raw material and finished products is not primarily through railways
4(d) Chlor Alkali industry All Chlor alkali plants with production capacity <300 TPD (located within notified industrial area) listed in the schedule as Category ‘B’ All Chlor alkali plants with production capacity <300 TPD (located outside notified industrial area) listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’
4(f) Leather/Skin/Hide processing industry All new expansion projects of leather production without tanning, located within in a notified industrial area/estate, listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’ All other projects listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’
5(a) Chemical Fertilizers Single Super Phosphate (SSP) plants involving only the activity of granulation of SSP powder All other Single Super Phosphate (SSP) plants listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’
5(d) Manmade fibers manufacturing All manmade fiber manufacturing units producing fibers from granules or chips All other manmade fiber manufacturing units listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’
7(g) Aerial ropeways All aerial ropeway projects, listed in the Schedule as Category ‘B’, should be categorized as Category B2  
* transportation by railways should not be less than 90 per cent of the traffic (inward and outward put together)

Moily hand?

Civil society groups have been criticising the environment ministry for allowing large integrated projects to get away with piecemeal environmental clearances by breaking it up into several smaller project components and without disclosing the full and cumulative impact of the projects. This new categorisation of projects would/will/may aids this piecemeal process.

These memorandums have been issued by the ministry after Veerappa Moily took charge of the ministry.

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