Thermal power plants taking heavy health and human toll

By ZRG | Last Updated: Mar 22, 2013, 15:07 PM IST

Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group

That India needs to make a sustained shift from coal-fired power plants to cleaner energy sources has once again found fresh resonance in a new report by Conservation Action Trust in partnership with Greenpeace India. The report “Coal Kills An Assessment of Death and Disease caused by India’s Dirtiest Energy Source” claims that in 2011-12, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to total PM10 pollution (particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter), leading to a cumulative monetary cost of Rs 16,000– 23,000 crore.

Dubbed by the report as “dirtiest energy source”, coal constitutes about 66 per cent of the fuel used to produce roughly 210 giga watts of electricity. At roughly 210 giga watts, India is the fifth largest electricity generator in the world, of which 66 per cent comes from coal. In 2011-12, India’s 111 coal-fired power plants mostly based in north and central India with a total generation capacity of 121 GW, consumed 503 million tons of coal. It generated an estimated 580 ktons of particulates with diameter less than 2.5 µm, 2100 ktons of sulfur dioxides, 2000 ktons of nitrogen oxides, 1100 ktons of carbon monoxide, 100 ktons of volatile organic compounds and 665 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Not all states and regions bear the brunt evenly. The largest impact is felt over the states of Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, the Indo-Gangetic plain, and most of central India. Some of the largest clusters are concentrated in South-central India such as Janjgir-Champa (30,470 MW) and Raigarh (24,380 MW) in Chhattisgarh; 22,380 MW within 10 km of Krishnapatnam Port in Nellore district (AP) and 51,218 MW in the area adjacent to Reva, Sonbhadra, Sidhi and Allahabad.

Demographically, children and the elderly in particular suffer the most from adverse health impacts. The lower strata of society which includes the poor, minority groups and other fringe communities who live in areas downwind of multiple power plants are likely to be disproportionately exposed to the health risks and costs of fine particle pollution, the report outlined.

The report further cautions that these impacts are likely to increase significantly in the future if policymakers don’t take cognisance. The heavy dependence on coal is not going to reduce significantly in the short-to-medium term.

Moreover, intent to reduce coal fired power plants is lacking. The planned capacity additions of 76 GW and 93 GW for the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) and the 13th Five Year Plan (2017-22) are heavily-weighted in favour of coal. Thanks to this, coal’s share in the Indian electricity basket will remain largely constant. The problem gets exacerbated with lack of policy attention towards modern pollution control technologies that would significantly reduce health impacts.

What’s the way forward? Given Indian dependence on coal is not going to substantially reduce in the near future, our policymakers should adopt US and European emission standards, which, unfortunately is not forthcoming.

E A S Sarma, former revenue secretary to the government of India, has been engaged in raising general awareness on environmental issues emanating from the excess use of coal as fuel in power plants. As an activist, Sarma is at the forefront of whatever little pro-environment movement the country has been waging against vested interests.

He reckons, “There is ample evidence of pollutants like heavy metals, mercury, radioactive isotopes (Uranium & Thorium) from fly ash at coal-based power plants entering the food chain and the human body, leading to serious health problems.”

Dubbing coal-fired power plants emissions as “silent killer”, Sarma laments indifferent approach of the Ministry of Environment and Forest towards such a serious issue.

“I have written on this to MOEF several times, both during Jairam’s time and now, without getting any response whatsoever. The Terms of Reference (TORs) of EIA studies do not factor in the need to look at this problem. Unfortunately, EIA consultants are paid by the project developers and their reports lack objectivity. Some reports are even based on plagiarised portions lifted from other reports. None of the EIA consultants who have been found submitting such fraudulent reports has been blacklisted till date, despite my letters to MOEF pointing it out.”

The silver lining, however, is that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has taken cognisance of the issue. According to Sarma, the NGT “has in fact asked MOEF in one case to ensure that the future EIAs cover a study on radioactive isotopes. MOEF has not cared to comply with that direction. ”

Not only that, continuous emission monitoring data at the plant level is not being maintained. Without knowing the exact level of emissions, it would be very difficult to extract better compliance. On top of it, better and improved assessment methods must be employed with human health as the key focus.