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Nearly 72% of India’s electricity is generated from thermal power plants. Despite its cost to the environment—burning coal produces carbon dioxide, and pollutants like mercury and sulpher dioxide, linked to acid rain—coal power has survived. Among others, one of the main reason is that it is one of the “cheaper" ways of producing electricity.

A recent study by two Tamil-Nadu based organizations questions this notion. Titled Coal Ash in India: A compendium of disasters, environment and health risks, the study tracks the impact of coal-ash on local communities and the environment. Over the past 10 years, says the study, coal-ash pollution caused 76 major accidents, a number of 'minor' accidents and a spike in chronic health conditions among the communities living around the thermal power stations.

Mint spoke to Shweta Narayan, coordinator of the Chennai-based Healthy Energy Initiative, which conducted the study along with Cuddalore-based NGO Community Environment Monitors. Coal power, said Narayan, is considered cheap because it doesn’t take into account the environmental and health costs resulting out of pollution. If the cost is calculated and polluting companies are made to pay for it, India’s reliance on coal might not be as prominent. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What prompted you to study the impact of coal-ash pollution?

We’ve been working on the issue for a while. Coal-ash is highly toxic but it is only talked about when there’s a major disaster. Like earlier this year, we heard about Reliance’s Sasan power plant (in Singrauli) which developed a breach and killed 6 people. But the toxins released from coal-ash have been killing people slowly all along. We realized the need to focus more attention on this problem.

Tell us about the human and ecological costs of coal-ash related pollution.

No one has done a comprehensive cost-assessment of the impact of coal-ash pollution. Such costs are externalized to the environment and the health of those living around thermal power plants. But if the cost is calculated and polluters are made to pay for it, we’ll realize that coal is not a cheap form of energy as we perceive it to be.

Take the example of power plants and coal mines in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh. The National Green Tribunal (in March 2020) imposed a penalty of 160 cr on its operators for causing environmental and health damages in the local community. This was done after the local communities got together, trained themselves and found that the particulate matter (PM) level in the area was around 500 Micrograms per Cubic Meter of Air (ug/m3). (The Central Pollution Control Board of India has laid down the 24-hour average National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM10 as 100 μg/m3 and PM2.5 as 60 μg/m3).

Are all of the thermal power plants violating the environmental norms?

Absolutely.

Why is that, do you think?

It’s impossible to comply with environmental norms if you want to produce electricity at a profit. With coal-ash, though it’s a huge problem, the volume of it is so high, it’s impossible for any agency to rein it in.

This brings me back to the policies we have in place that gives priority to certain forms of energy choices. India’s policy is heavily dependent on coal. It does not regulate the pollution or health costs. Policy makers let coal ash be a problem because people don’t realize what a big problem it is. But in the long term, it’ll do a lot of damage.

Can coal ash be utilized without damaging the environment?

A few years ago coal-ash was declassified from ‘hazardous waste’ to just ‘waste’. It was done to allow some form of utilization of it, like making bricks or filling out a low lying area.

Filling up low-lying areas is as good as saying 'discharge the waste in the river'. That’s exactly what the companies are doing. River areas are low-lying, so they just dump it there. Legally, they’re not doing anything wrong, but environmentally, it’s a crime.

Coal-ash is also used for mine backfilling. Studies are ongoing to see the impact of it, and I haven’t seen any data out in the public that says it’s completely non-toxic.

Your report talks about 76 major accidents, many minor accidents, that have happened over the past decade due to coal ash. Did they cause loss of lives as well?

Occasional accidents aren't the only metric. Often, ash-pond breaches cause ash to enter water bodies and agricultural fields, sometimes ash carried in pipelines burst and enter people’s homes. In summers, there are also tornadoes of ash dust. It’s so thick, people can’t see.

In Korba (in Chhattisgarh), a state health research centre study found those living around 10km of the power plant showed respiratory problems. Lung damage among those residents was twice as much there than beyond. In Raigarh (in Chhatisgarh), a report showed that people as young as 25 were suffering from joint paints and arthritis.

But the data collection is patchy. There’s no systematic assessment. Livestock death is also not documented. There are several cases of cattle drinking water out of ponds with coal-ash and dying.

What steps has the Indian govt taken over the years to regulate such pollution?

The CEA (Central Electricity Authority) report says 77% coal ash produced in thermal power plants is utilized. From the legal point of view, coal plants are supposed to 100% utilize fly ash within 4 years of operation. There’s no proof they’ve done that, there’s no record of any action taken against them. There is policy but its efficacy is debatable.

What’s the alternative?

Not burning coal.

Are you saying all thermal power plants should be shut down?

They need to be regulated from environment and health points of view so that they are not geared only towards keeping their costs low. Coal ash is polluting, it’s compromising an ecological resource. Water is getting polluted, land is going barren. For coal plants to operate, regulation and norms have to be strictly implemented. If we’re making an economic argument, let that be based on true costs. That includes environment and health costs.

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