Incidents of fly-ash breaches points to serious, unaddressed issue of unutilised fly-ash piling up in the region
Three instances of fly-ash breaches from power plants in Singrauli-Sonebhadra — spread across parts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP) — within a year, have raised concerns over coal power plants struggling to manage unused ash, leading to frequent ash breach incidents and its piling up in the region.
The most recent fly-ash breach occurred at the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Plant (owned by Reliance Power) on April 10, 2020, that resulted in the death of two individuals and the spread of the toxic material to an area of six kilometres, destroying nearby agricultural fields.
Last year, similar incidences of an ash dyke breach occurred at the Essar Mahan Power Plant and NTPC Vindhyachal plant located in the same region.
People living in Singrauli-Sonebhadra have suffered the adverse effects of air pollution for several years because of the abundance of coal mines and power plants in the region.
The area was identified as critically polluted by the Central Pollution Control Board around 10 years ago, with an overall Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index assessment score of 81.73.
The National Green Tribunal formed a committee last year to assess fines as environmental compensation to be recovered from polluting power plants located in the Singrauli region, because of the air pollution caused by power plants in the region.
There are nine major thermal power stations that operate out of Singrauli district in MP and Sonebhadra district in UP, with a total installed power generation capacity of around 21,270 megawatts (MW).
More than half of this capacity (11,180 MW) is relatively new and was added in the past 10 years. More capacity addition caused tremendous amounts of coal consumption and subsequently, fly-ash generation in the region.
Power plants currently operating in Singrauli-Sonebhadra belt
|Name of plant||Owner||Most recent capacity addition (year)||Total Capacity (in MW)||Unit count|
|Mahan Power Plant||Essar||2018||1,200||2|
|Sasan power plant||Reliance Power||2015||3,960||6|
|Nigrie Thermal Power Plant||Jaypee||2015||1,320||2|
|Vindhyachal Super Thermal Power Station||NTPC||2015||4,760||13|
|Rihand Thermal Power Station||NTPC||2013||3,000||6|
|Anpara Thermal Power Station||UPRVUNL||2012||2,630||7|
|Singrauli Super Thermal Power Station||NTPC||1987||2,000||7|
|Obra Thermal Power Station||UPRVUNL||1982||1,200||7|
Source: Centre for Science and Environment 2020
Both UP and MP are in the top four states in the country in terms of fly-ash generation and in the bottom four states in terms of its percentage utilisation, according to the Central Electricity Authority’s latest ash generation and utilisation report for 2018-19.
The two states account for about 51 gigawatts of power generation capacity, half of which is generated at the Singrauli-Sonebhadra region.
The high fly-ash generation and low utilisation figures clearly indicate huge amounts of un-utilised ash that could be accumulating in ash dykes in wet form or stored in dry form in the region.
Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that Sasan power plant had an extremely low percentage of ash utilisation in the past two years. While the nation-wide annual fly ash utilisation percentage figures stood at 77.59 per cent and 67.13 per cent for 2018-19 and 2017-18 respectively, it was only 37 per cent and 29 per cent for the Sasan power plant in the respective years.
The CSE analysis found the plant was running at a plant load factor of 95 per cent for the past two to three years, leading to high coal consumption and huge amounts of ash generation as well, since Indian coal with high ash content generates large quantities of fly-ash.
Sasan power plant – Percentage ash utilisation for 2018-19 and 2017-18
|Power plant||Year||Fly-ash generation (million tonnes)||Fly-ash utilisation (million tonnes)||Utilisation (in per cent)|
|Sasan power plant (Reliance Power)||2018-19||4.0222||1.4916||37.08|
Source: Annual Ash Generation & Utilisation Report 2018-19 & 2017-18; Central Electricity Authority
The CSE analysis — looking at nationwide figures for fly-ash utilisation — found unused ash stock from thermal power plants in the past 10 years totalled to as high as 627 million tonnes, more than three times the current ash generation figures.
Surplus ash stocks increased every year due to lesser utilisation of fly-ash, putting pressure on existing ash dykes. Low ash utilisation figures indicate piling up of huge amounts of ash in wet form in ash dykes / ponds or in dry storage form.
This creates a burden on existing storage structures that do not have enough capacity to handle such huge amounts. As a result, ash dykes are often leaked or overflow due to excess ash slurry, creating havoc for people living nearby.
It also leads to significant groundwater and surface water pollution. Several recent studies show people living in these polluting areas are more vulnerable to the current novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The un-used ash for coal power plants in India in the past ten years amounts to 627 million tonnes
|Year||Fly-ash generation (million tonnes)||Fly-ash utilisation (million tonnes)||Ash utilisation (in per cent)||Un-used ash (million tonnes)|
|Total unused ash (2009-18)||627|
Source: Central Electricity Authority Reports and CSE Analysis 2020
For efficient utilisation, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued the first fly-ash notification on September 14, 1999, subsequently amended in 2003, 2009 and 2016 in order to further enhance fly-ash utilisation.
All power plants were supposed to achieve 100 per cent fly-ash utilisation — which did not happen — by November 2014, according to a notification on November 3, 2009.
The MoEF&CC subsequently set the target for fly-ash utilisation by December 31, 2017, according to its notification dated January 25, 2016. Several power plants, however, still struggle to achieve this target. Around 43 per cent of the plants do not achieve this target yet, according to 2018-19 data from the Central Electricity Authority.
Though percentage ash utilisation is steadily increasing, more effort is needed for its effective and 100 per cent utilisation, otherwise fly-ash breaches will become more frequent in the near future.
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