Singrauli pollution a matter of serious concern, admits high power panel

Report submitted to National Green Tribunal finds serious lapses in disposal of fly ash, but skims over health and environmental impacts of pollution in India's power generation hub

By Srestha Banerjee
Published: Thursday 06 March 2014

The committee headed by CPCB member secretary A B Akolkar found that major power plants are dispose of fly ash slurry into the Rihand reservoir. The reservoir was found to be further contaminated by effluent discharges from coal mining projects in the area

A report submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has confirmed the ever-increasing burden of pollution in Singrauli industrial belt, spread across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The report by a high power committee, chaired by A B Akolkar, member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), has identified several air and water pollution concerns that continue to add to the pollution burden of the region.

“Pollution problems in the Singrauli- Sonbhadra area from industrial activities is a serious concern,” says Akolkar. The region has already been identified as a critically polluted area (CPA) by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

The report was filed earlier this week in response to a case currently being heard at the tribunal on pollution in Singrauli. The area consists of north east area of Madhya Pradesh and southern part of Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. According to the petitioner, Ashwani Dubey, a resident of Singrauli who is a lawyer, “heavy industrial activities are a major source of pollution in the area and causing immense health impacts.” “Incremental coal mining activities in the region and the rapid development of coal-based thermal power plants has resulted in acute air and water pollution, leading to serious health problems among the residents of the locality ,which remain unaddressed,” says Dubey  (see 'India's Minamata' and 'Mercury in air, water').

Following the submissions of the petitioner, the NGT bench chaired by Justice Swatanter Kumar had passed directions on January 29 for setting up a committee to inspect the entire area. The committee was to investigate and report on whether major industries in the area were adhering to prescribed standard of emissions, check their individual emissions at the stack level, disposal of fly ash and assess their cumulative impact on the environment. The committee was also asked to check ambient air quality and ascertain whether transportation of coal and other goods to the industries in the area is causing health hazards on the road/ streets of the two districts.

Singrauli's curse

Singrauli region, a major power hub of the country, is dotted with coal mines and coal-fired thermal power plants, which together have an installed capacity of about 12,700 MW. The mines produce nearly 83 million tonnes of coal per annum (MTPA). Most of the coal mines are located on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The area also has aluminium smelting plants, chemical industry, cement industry, stone crushers and other industries.

In January 2010, MoEF had declared Singrauli as a critically polluted area on the basis of the comprehensive environmental pollution index (CEPI) of CPCB.  The CEPI is a measure of the severity of air, water and land pollution in industrial clusters and cities. Areas having aggregate CEPI scores of 70 are considered to be critically polluted, requiring detailed investigations in terms of the extent of damage and formulation of appropriate remedial action plan for managing pollution. Singrauli, with a CEPI score of 81.73, was rated the ninth most critically polluted area of India. As a result, in January 2010 a moratorium on new projects, including expansion projects, was imposed on the area. The states were to submit an action plan to address the environmental concerns in the region. Based on the action plans submitted by the Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Boards and CPCB's recommendations MoEF lifted the moratorium in July, 2011.

Observations of Akolkar Committee

The Akolkar committee visited Singrauli industrial area on February 9 and 10. Other committee members included K K Garg, director with MoEF (Lucknow), Sushil Lakra, industrial advisor with Union Ministry of Heavy Industries, J S Yadav, member secretary of Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) and R K Jain, member secretary of Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB).

The report based on the site inspection and inputs from state officials, some major industrial stakeholders in the area, such as NTPC, Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL), and civil society groups, was submitted to the tribunal on March 3. The committee found serious lapses in disposal and management of fly ash in the area. Dry abandoned ash ponds in the area were found to be left open without provision of proper vegetation cover.  Trucks, often burdened with excess loads of coal and without proper cover, were found to be spilling coal and fly ask during transportation. Disposal of fly ash slurry in the Rihand reservoir was also a serious concern. Major players like NTPC were found to dispose of fly ash slurry generated from their super thermal power plant into the Rihand reservoir. The reservoir was found to be further contaminated by effluent discharges from coal mining projects in the area. It was noted that effluent from the NCL coal mining projects in Dudhichua was being discharged in the reservoir through Balia Nala. The committee also pointed out problems with management of mine overburden by coal mining projects and management of hazardous wastes by industries.

Based on the observations, the committee recommended that the action plans formulated by the pollution control boards of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh for various categories of industries in the area should be duly followed by industries in a time-bound manner and that a quarterly progress reports must be provided to the respective state pollution control boards. The process also needs to be monitored closely, the committee said.

Specific recommendations have also been given for fly ash management through 100 per cent fly ash utilisation, transportation of coal through closed conveyor belts, preventing discharge of fly ash slurry in Rihand reservoir or any other water courses, installation of effluent and emission monitoring by all industries that have been identified to cause pollution by July this year, installation of continuous air quality monitoring stations by operating industries at their own cost by September.

What the committee ignored

Given the severity of the pollution in the area, the committee report appears to go soft on industries. Though the report highlighted some of the pollution concerns, several important matters barely find mention. The committee says that because of time limitation the members could not examine ground water pollution, impact of pollution on public health and crops, toxic impact on the environment, particularly with reference to mercury pollution. They suggested that a systemic and holistic study needs to be undertaken in this regard. The committee specifically mentions the need of study on human health impacts caused by groundwater contamination, air pollution and mercury pollution.

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Delhi-based non-profit, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says considerable studies have been done which indicate acute pollution problems and associated health impacts  in the region, including mercury poisoning. The need of the hour is action, he adds. Responding to community concerns about public health impacts of industrial pollution, CSE had carried out a study on pollution in Sonbhadra district between May to August 2012. The study found various levels of heavy metal pollution in the area, including fluoride, mercury and lead, which were found to be higher than the permissible limits. Of particular concern was mercury pollution in the area—average concentrations of mercury in human blood was noted to be 34.30 parts per billion (ppb), far exceeding the 5.8 ppb safe standard set by the United States Environment Protection Agency.  More than 84 per cent of the blood samples were found to contain mercury above the safe level. CSE recommended the setting of mercury standards for coal-based thermal plants, coal washeries and mining in the country. According to Bhushan, the states need to redevelop their action plans, taking into account mercury pollution and its impacts.

Comprehensive action plan needed

The report of the committee notes that the action plan in place for the area is being implemented by both state pollution control boards. However, officials of MPPCB consider that industrial activities and associated pollution problems of the area are more on the Uttar Pradesh side than in Madhya Pradesh, and therefore, action on part of the UPPCB is of greater import.

Akolkar, though, emphasises more on the regional nature of the problem. “The pollution problem in the area should be assessed on a regional basis to take effective measures,” says Akolkar.  He says that a comprehensive action plan needs to be developed for the area, taking both Singrauli and Sonbhadra into consideration. The dispersal of pollutants needs to be monitored and modelled appropriately for developing such approach. The committee has also recommended an assessment of the environmental carrying capacity of the region to consider future development projects.

The case is to be next heard at NGT on March 31.

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