The ministry of environment and forests plans to issue fresh emission level guidelines for steel plants, as state pollution control boards struggle to oversee a sponge iron industry growing with the demand for steel.
For the first time, the Central Pollution Control Board has drafted norms to check “fugitive emission” levels—basically, tracking ambient pollution levels that directly affect factory workers in integrated steel plants with blast furnaces as well as sponge iron units. Currently, air quality measures only exist for emissions from chimneystacks.
As states jockey for steel investment because the sector brings jobs and infrastructure development, residents and environmental groups worry that the effect of the industry on pollution needs to be more closely monitored.
“Checking only stack emission won’t solve the problem,” said B. Sengupta, member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board. “There is a large number of sponge iron units which pose a serious environmental concern.”
India has the world’s largest concentration of sponge iron units, which produced 16.4 million tonnes last year. That’s expected to climb to 19 million tonnes by the end of this fiscal. In 2006, more than 40% of 49.3 million of Indian steel was sourced from sponge iron, created when iron ore is reduced to metallic iron, usually with some kind of carbon.
The current permissible levels of suspended particulate matter (SPM) is 150mg per cu. m in stacks; in states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, it exceeds 1,000mg per cu m, said Sengupta.
Once new rules are enacted, fugitive emissions level for SPM cannot exceed 2mg per cu m within 10m of polluting sources such as crushing areas, as well as manufacturing spots. For the first year, it has relaxed that to 3mg.
The board has also recommended reduction from 150 to 100mg per cu m for stacks in guidelines expected to be released soon.
Revised norms will also be issued for blast furnaces and melting shops and for solid waste management for handling char, a waste product generated during sponge iron making. New regulations for coke oven batteries, a high air contamination source, were issued last year.
Steel companies are increasingly making steel with sponge iron due to a depleting domestic coking coal supply and higher import costs.
Companies have also been advised to adopt green technology to gain carbon credits. The measures are specific, such as the inclusion of adding fluidized bed boilers to generate power from char, or setting up waste heat recovery boilers to use flue gas generated during sponge iron manufacture for reuse, Sengupta said.
At least 30 steel companies, including the Steel Authority of India Ltd, Tata Steel Ltd and gas-based plants of Ispat Industries Ltd and Essar Steel Ltd, have separately applied to the National Clean Development Mechanism Authority for carbon credit benefits by cutting fossil fuel use. Of these, 15 are sponge iron plants, according to a steel ministry official who did not want to be named.
State pollution control boards, however, say that the main violators continue to be medium-sized and small sponge iron units, which have witnessed rampant growth in the last few years, clustering around Orissa, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Jharkhand.
Demand has also resulted in start-ups mushrooming in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. About 450-500 plants are estimated to be operating within the country, more than one-fifth in Orissa.
With the development, the high levels of pollution in residential locations have triggered worry. About half the 86 units in Chhattisgarh are located in Raipur, the state capital. The Central Pollution Control Board’s 2005 data show that Raipur is among 10 cities with high average concentration of SPM at .4mg per cu m. The optimal level is .3mg per cu m.
The Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board has charged some 35 sponge units in the past for violation of air pollution and environment protection acts.
Officials say entrepreneurs who resisted installing devices such as electro-static precipitators (ESPs), which essentially check stack pollution, are reluctant to run them. An ESP cost upwards of Rs1 crore to install and power costs vary between Rs1-2 lakh a month.
“Many units do not operate the device to save power costs,” said Joy Oommen, Chhattisgarh additional chief secretary in charge of industry and environment. “We have decided to crack down on these units by asking them to set up separate electric meters and step up surveillance by involving the state electricity board to shut down power of offenders.”
Orissa has similarly issued notice to some 13 sponge units. Environmentalist say stricter vigilance is needed by the state pollution boards, already understaffed.
“There is a huge gap between the intent of law and implementation,” said Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment. “There is no regulatory mechanism to monitor such kind of industrial development.”
He said the cost of compliance will mainly fall on smaller firms since they represent 75% of the total sponge industry.
There are nearly 41 units in Jharkhand and according to a state official, at least half a dozen companies are operating without ESP devices, despite laws mandating their installation.
West Bengal has 49 sponge iron units. Last year, the government engaged Tata Consultancy Services Ltd to design a device called the Environmental Compliance Monitoring & Control System, an interlocking device that automatically shuts off power in units if stack emissions are not monitored.
The 195 members of the Sponge Iron Manufacturers Association had to show they have taken anti-pollution measures before being admitted to the organization, said S.S. Bhatnagar, executive director. But he adds: “If any of them have flouted rules after admission, there’s nothing we can do about it.”