22/08/2019 8:02 AM IST | Updated 10/09/2019 1:31 PM IST

Life In Grey-Scale: What Life Is Like When You're Sandwiched Between Two Coal Plants

This Maharashtra village offers a worrying glimpse into the costs of India’s continued dependence on coal fired power plants.

Ajay Verma / Reuters
Representative image. 

NAGPUR, Maharashtra — On the morning of 10 July 2019, residents of Varegaon village in Maharashtra’s Nagpur district awoke to a breach in Khaparkheda Thermal Power Plant’s ash pond. A delayed monsoon had increased the pressure on the pond’s walls; the breach dumped millions of litres of coal ash into the Kolar river, according to reports in local papers.

The breach was repaired in 18 hours, but Varegaon residents — who live barely 500 metres from the ash pond boundary — said such spillages had occurred before. In 2015, a similar incident left a blanket of toxic coal ash on the village’s fields of cotton, wheat and pulses.

The 1340 MW Khaparkheda Thermal Power Plant is one of two adjacent coal-fired plants owned and operated by Maharashtra State Power Generation Company (MAHAGENCO). The other plant, a 2400 MW plant 6 km away at Koradi, has a similarly poor record of non-compliance with India’s environmental regulations, according to inspections conducted by India’s environment ministry. 

A sample: the consent to operate for the Khaparkheda Thermal Power Plant expired three years ago in 2016. At present, the plant has conditional clearance to operate till August 31 2019.

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The plant in Koradi, in the meantime, was supposed to install a Flue Gas Desulphurisation unit (FGD), a device meant to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions, seven years ago in 2012. But the FGD unit has not been installed — implying this plant is operating in violation of the conditions of its environmental clearance as well.

Yet, rather than attempt to remedy the impacts of the plants on the region, a review of the meeting minutes of 28 May 2019 of the Expert Appraisal Committee (Thermal) of the environment ministry reveal that state-run MAHAGENCO has proposed the expansion of Koradi TPP.

The proposed expansion of the Koradi thermal power plant, and the realities of life in the villages that surround it, offer a worrying glimpse into the costs of India’s continued dependence on coal fired power plants. 

Companies like MAHAGENCO justify such expansions by arguing there is a ‘need’ for energy that has to be met; critics and environmentalists warn that the demand for this power itself doesn’t necessarily exist. 

“Nagpur is a power surplus area. There is no demand for power here,” said Sudhir Paliwal, environmentalist and convener of Vidarbh Environmental Action Group. 

The electricity generated in these power plants goes to the western parts of Maharashtra, Paliwal explained, yet as much as a quarter of the electricity generated was lost in transmission. The proposed expansion at Koradi was meant to compensate for the closure of two thermal power plant units in Nashik.

“It is wise to set up new plants where the demand exists, but this is not the case here,” Paliwal said. “Water that will be used for two new units will directly affect water available to farmers of the region and the pollution already affecting locals only stands to be exacerbated. 

“The state should be pushing for sources of energy such as solar on a large scale, but instead it seems to be pushing for more coal plants in a manner lacking strategic intent.”

As per themeeting minutes, a proposal to grant Terms of Reference (ToR) for Koradi TPP expansion by the addition of two units of 660 MW each has been discussed. ToR for preparing Environmental Impact Assessment is the first step in getting an Environment Clearance. 

At the meeting, the Expert Appraisal Committee recommended that a six member subcommittee visit the site to assess the cumulative impacts of the existing and proposed power projects on the region. The sub-committee visited the plants and neighbouring villages on 1 August 2019. 

A decision on the proposed expansion shall be taken after the sub-committee submits its report.

This writer has written to three officials at MAHAGENCO. This story will be updated once they respond. 

Fly ash everywhere

The village of Varegoan sits between the power plants at Koradi and Khaparkheda. Its people say they have borne the brunt of pollution from the plants for over 30 years, since the first unit of the Khaparkheda plant was commissioned in 1989. The village itself pre-dates the plant, said Subhash Modkar, who has lived in Varegaon for over 60 years.

“If you park your car outside at night, it will be covered in a layer of white by morning. There is fly ash everywhere,” says Kamlakar Bongre, Sarpanch of Varegaon village. “Even vessels containing drinking water which are usually covered have fly ash settling in them.”

Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burnt in thermal power plants. The fine particle ash that rises up the smoke stack with flue gases is ‘fly ash’; the heavier ash that settles at the bottom is ‘bottom ash’. In India, a combination of both is commonly dumped in large ash ponds adjacent to the plants. These ponds are supposed to be lined with a non-permeable coating to stop toxins from ash from leaching into the groundwater.

As water in the ponds dry in the hot summer months, the ash gets airborne and settles on fields and houses in the vicinity.   

But the ash pond is not the sole source of all the fly ash. 

An inspection by the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change found two older 210 MW units at Khaparkheda currently operate without a modern Electrostatic Precipitator (ESP), a mandatory anti-pollution device that filters fine particles from plant exhaust fumes, according to anInspection Report dated 15th April 2019.  The ESP currently in place is too old, and inefficient to comply with current emission standards.

Without properly functioning ESPs, fly ash exits directly from plant smokestacks and into the surroundings, where it can be inhaled by local residents. 

The inspection report also found several shortcomings  and outright violations by the Khaparkheda plant: Two old units have recorded Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) levels of 220 mg/Nm3, more than twice the permissible limits (as set by Dec 2015 Notification). Retrofitting for these units is under process as of now, the report states. 

Secondly, Khaparkheda power station failed to conduct groundwater quality monitoring for heavy metals around the ash pond area. Thirdly, the power plant has been using coal with ash content between 38-42%, again above the permissible 34% says the Inspection Report. 

Finally, the report also states that the Consent to Operate for this power plant expired on 25.02.2016 and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) is yet to grant renewal. As things stand, conditional consent to operate till 31 August 2019 for the plant has been approved, according to  meeting minutes of Consent Appraisal Committee’s meeting held on 19th June 2019. 

Effectively all major EC conditions stipulated with the intent of safeguarding the environment and people from potential harms of fly ash have been violated, and the people worst affected by these violations are the ones living closest to the plants.

“Cough and cold are common across all age groups. We have itchy skin, especially in summer when the fly ash being airborne is at its peak,” said Rajit Mishra, the deputy Sarpanch of Varegaon. “Ash covers our homes and clothes. On some days when there has been too much wind and we’re outside, we have come back covered in white.”

“The quality of cotton, wheat and red gram (tuvar) grown by us all diminish due to fly ash deposits on them,” said Modkar. “We have to sell our produce for lower prices. It even settles on the soil in our fields.” 

 In addition to impacts on people, the natural environment is at stake as well. Kanhan River flows at a distance of about 800m from Khaparkheda ash pond’s boundary. Kolar river which was filled with coal ash water due to the breach earlier this month flows to join Kanhan. A nala exiting the ash pond boundary is also laden with ash.

Sehr Raheja/Manthan Adhyayan Kendra

Deadly effect

Coal ash is known to contain traces of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium, and can be highly toxic.

“If eaten, drunk or inhaled, these toxicants can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems,” note Physicians for Social Responsibility, an American advocacy group. “They can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.”

Unfortunately, the power plant at Khaparkheda is not alone in blatantly flouting environmental norms. The Koradi Power Plant, which MAHAGENCO hopes to expand, has a long standing failure to comply with environmental regulations as well. 

In their meeting on 28 May 2019, the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Environment Ministry noted that MAHAGENCO is yet to install a Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD) unit, a set of machines meant to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions, at the Koradi plant despite being instructed to do so in 2012. 

Seven years on, the Expert Appraisal Committee meeting minutes indicate that it is not known if MAHAGENCO has installed the FGD unit yet, which means the Koradi thermal power plant continues to operate without legally mandated pollution control technology. 

Wishful thinking

MAHAGENCO’s abysmal compliance record extends to how it disposes of its fly ash. In theory, coal-fired plants are supposed to utilise fly ash as an industrial resource — particularly as an additive in cement. 

Yet, in practice, experts have questioned if complete fly ash utilisation is actually achievable.

“100% utilization of ash is nothing but wishful thinking. This is partly because we produce huge amounts of ash every year – 196 million tons last year,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary an environmentalist with Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. “But it is a mirage also because several of the modalities of “utilisation” are really highly polluting and dangerous to the ecology as well as communities.”

Dharamdhikary said, “The only way to manage the ash problem is to produce as little ash as possible, and so there is no recourse except to move towards electricity generation options that don’t produce ash, like solar.”

The Central Electricity Authority’s (CEA)reporton fly ash generation and utilisation in the country for the first half of 2018-19 shows that Khaparkheda has managed a mere 30% utilisation, Koradi stands at an even lower 14% despite the fact that both plants were supposed to have utilised 100% of the fly ash they produce.

Despite this poor track record,  MAHAGENCO’s proposal for Koradi’s expansion  notes that the new units will generate about 2.48 million metric tonnes of ash each year that shall be utilised in its entirety. To quote from the meeting minutes of the Expert Appraisal Committee, “A fly ash cluster is under development in Koradi for utilization of fly ash. It is expected that this cluster will be operational by 2021. The 100 % ash will be utilized as per MoEF notification.”  

Sehr Raheja/Manthan Adhyayan Kendra
Fly ash from the pond is air borne and settles on fields and houses of Varegaon.

No commercial viability

Environmentalist Sudhir Paliwal believes the proposed expansion of Koradi TPP is not just a bane for the environment, but it is not commercially viable either. 

“Thermal Power Plants (commissioned and pipeline) with a combined capacity of about 40,000 MW are sitting idle in the country today. Even in Nagpur district itself, several TPPs with varying capacities are not running currently either due to lack of coal linkage or simply due to lack of demand,” Paliwal said. “Koradi’s units proposed for expansion are linked to the controversial Gare Palma coal mine in Chhattisgarh, so the transportation of coal from the source to the plant will be from over 500 Km away. 

“Considering there is no demand in this region, and the source is at a considerable distance, the expansion of Koradi does not fit the bill for commercial feasibility. The impacts of ash on human health and environment from Chandrapur, Koradi and Khaparkheda Thermal Power Plants are colossal, and water requirements for new units will only add to the existing water stress of the region. It makes no sense to add new units under such circumstances.”

Back in Varegaon, villagers are praying that the Expert Appraisal Committee finally decides against  granting approval to the proposed expansion.

“The number of people visiting doctors for asthma in our village is high. I have asthma too,” said Rajit Mishra, a deputy Sarpanch, Varegaon village. “We know it is because of the ash – it’s everywhere, on our skin, in our water, in our homes.”

This writer has written to three officials at MAHAGENCO, including the managing director and chief engineers of the respective power plants. This story will be updated once they respond.

Sehr Raheja is a researcher with Manthan Adhyayan Kendra.