New Delhi: Expansion projects of coal mines involving increase in production capacity by up to 40% in 2-3 phases will not require a public hearing, an expert panel of the environment ministry has held in a decision that is set to bring significant relief to India’s coal industry.

The coal ministry repeatedly sought such a relief arguing that public hearings in the process of forest clearance is time-consuming. Environmentalists, however, said the relaxation to miners will dilute the present system.

The decision was taken by the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) on coal mining projects in its meeting on 25 July.

The issue was first discussed at a 2015 meeting between the then Union environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, and Union coal minister Piyush Goyal. At the meeting, a request was made by Coal India Ltd (CIL) to allow it to raise output capacity by 50% without having to go through a public hearing.

The concerns of people affected by a project or activity are taken into account through a public hearing.

The proposal was discussed by EAC in 2015 and then again in January 2017, but no decision was taken.

“The issue was again raised during the meeting of secretary, ministry of coal, with secretary (of the environment, forest and climate change) on 21 February. It was reiterated to consider the request for grant of EC to expansion projects of coal mines with the exemption from public hearing," said minutes of EAC’s meeting which were reviewed by Mint.

EAC, after detailed deliberations, recommended “considering the proposals for grant of environmental clearances to expansion projects of coal mines involving increase in production capacity up to 40% in 2-3 phases with exemption from public hearing".

It was, however, noted that while considering such proposals, due diligence conducted by EAC would be based on fulfilling certain requirements—like “predicted air quality parameters are within prescribed norms" and “coal transportation is through conveyor system up to the silo and then loading to railway wagons, involving no transportation through roads".

According to the minutes, other factors EAC will look at while considering such expansion projects for environmental clearance are that “coal mining is done through deployment of surface miners, replacing three dust generating operations of the conventional mining system namely drilling, blasting and crushing in one go."

For EAC due diligence to proceed, it would insist on other conditions—that a public hearing has already been held for total mine lease area and no more area is required for the proposed expansion; compliance status of environmental clearance conditions monitored is found to be satisfactory and that other requirements like consent to establish/operate, clearance from the Central Ground Water Authority, approval of mining plan and the mine closure plan, mine closure status report, forest clearance, etc., are satisfactorily fulfilled.

“If a coal mine is already adhering to all conditions stipulated in EC (environment clearance) and has not adversely impacted the local environment, the rehabilitation and resettlement of the impacted community had happened to the letter and spirit, they should not worry about public hearing. The fact is the studies which are commissioned by coal companies always favour them, regional offices hardly have any capacity to do due diligence on monitoring of EC conditions and removing public hearing is the last nail in the coffin for both environment and the community," said Nandikesh Sivalingam, senior campaigner with Greenpeace India, an NGO working on environmental issues.

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