Okhla waste-to-energy plant safe: Jayanthi Natarajan

Activists, residents contest the statement; say India has no standards on emissions from incinerators

By Moyna
Published: Thursday 15 March 2012

Justifying the controversial waste-to-energy plant set up at Okhla, Union environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan, has said the emissions from the Jindal plant are well within the limits set under the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000.
Replying to a question by Jayprakash Narayan Singh, a BJP MP from Jharkhand, whether the residents near Yamuna river in Delhi are facing breathlessness due to smoke and odour emanating from the plant, the minister on March 13 stated in the Rajya Sabha that the technology used at the plant is certified as per the Rules.

“Complaints were received against the incineration of municipal waste and its likely harmful effects on the air quality and health of people in the Sukhdev Vihar/Okhla area due to the emissions from the waste-to-energy plant,” she said in the House. She added that the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) is regularly monitoring the emissions from the stack attached to the plant. “The levels of Nitrogen oxide (NOx) and Hydrochloric acid mist were found within the standards prescribed in the Rules. On four occasions out of 10, levels of particulate matter (PM) exceeded the standard of 150 mg/nm3,” she noted.
No standards for waste incineration

The statement by the environment minister has irked the residents of the area.  “It seems the minister is laughing at the plight of the residents. One needs to be there at the sight to believe the damage this plant is causing to the environment and to the health of the residents,” said the residents association near the plant in a statement to the media.

The Okhla waste-to-energy plant started trial runs on January 3, 2012. It received the DPCC’s approval in late 2011.

Shahid Hassan, a resident of the area who has been handling the legal initiative against the plant, says, “The bigger question here seems to have gone unasked and unanswered. What are they monitoring? India has no norms or standards for incineration monitoring.” Regardless of technologies and systems, all municipal waste incinerators produce toxic pollutants such as cadmium, lead, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, which are detrimental to health and environment, Hassan explains. Health problems include delayed development, birth defects, brain damage, respiratory and cardiovascular ailments and cancers.
“We have standards set for ambient air quality which is the same as the one used on heavy traffic junctions. This is completely inadequate,” says Dharmesh Shah of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), a non-profit. He adds, that in August 2011, when the trial runs for the plant were approved, the company had promised to look into the heavy metals and dioxin emissions. “This issue has been overlooked despite there being enough proof that it is the dioxins and heavy metals are hazardous to human health,” says Shah. 

Voicing similar concerns Gopal Krishna, convener of ToxicsWatch Alliance, a non-profit, says the minister's statement is flawed and misleading. “The ministry itself is on record stating that the technology of the Okhla waste-to-energy plant is a mistake and now the minister is stating the plant is within the given norms.” Both the plant and its technology are flawed and a case has already been filed in the Delhi High Court. The hearing is scheduled for March 21. “But the government has gone ahead with trial runs without having proved the veracity in the court of law.”

Krishna adds that waste-to-energy plants are redundant in most economies and even more so in India as the composition of the Indian municipal waste does not have high calorific value and therefore is unsuitable for energy generation. Eighty per cent of the solid waste is organic in nature.

Questioning the feasibility of the Okhla plant Shah says, “We have pictures showing heavy smoke being emitted from the plant and when the company was asked they say it is steam. The whole situation is rather ridiculous because steam evaporates as soon as it is released and is not dark grey or black unless mixed with hazardous gas.” He adds that the figures of waste burnt in the plant are also wrong. “In full capacity the plant requires 2,050 metric tonnes of waste daily and during the trial runs it was to receive 300 metric tonnes daily. But the minister has stated that a total of 27,469 metric tonnes has been burnt while 3,250 metric tonnes is lying at the storage pit of the plant.”


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