By ANSHUMAN BHARGAVA :
In the last decade, coal consumption and fly ash generation from coal power plants have jumped up by almost 80 per cent. On an average, 35 per cent of fly ash remain unutilised in this decade, leading to its piling up in ash ponds. n Half the coal-fired power plants in India flout norms of fly ash management. Some plants don’t even utilise 30-40 per cent of the fly ash. In the last decade, coal consumption and fly ash generation from coal power plants have jumped up by almost 80 per cent. On an average, 35 per cent of fly ash remains unutilised in this decade, leading to its piling up in ash ponds.
INDIA has the third-largest coal reserves in the world, and its power generation is primarily dependent on burning coal. But the coal-based thermal power plants in India are the least efficient and therefore the most polluting in the world. A recent study by the New Delhi-based environment think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) covered 47 plants across 16 States, accounting for half the coal-based thermal power plants in the country. It found that the sector performed poorly on all environmental and energy parameters, getting a score of a mere 23 per cent. As many as 40 per cent of the plants scored below 20 per cent. Globally, a thermal plant following all the best practices can get a score of around 80 per cent.
The average efficiency of the Indian plants was 32.8 per cent, making it one of the lowest in the world. Their average carbon dioxide emissions were 14 per cent higher than the average in China. Carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas that is causing climate change, which in turn is reducing farm output worldwide, rising sea levels and causing prolonged droughts, intense storms and floods more frequent and more severe. Another major pollutant from these coal-based plants, which doesn’t often make the news, but makes them more dangerous environmentally, is fly ash. Half the coal-fired power plants in India flout norms of fly ash management. Some plants don’t even utilise 30-40 per cent of the fly ash. In the last decade, coal consumption and fly ash generation from coal power plants have jumped up by almost 80 per cent.
On an average, 35 per cent of fly ash remain unutilised in this decade, leading to its piling up in ash ponds. As per a report, between 2010 and 2020, several major ash dyke breach incidents and cases of unsafe disposal of the ash have been reported from many regions. In the most recent incident in April 2020, a breach in the fly ash dyke of Reliance Power-owned Sasan plant in the Singrauli region of Madhya Pradesh led to fly ash slurry entering nearby farms and villages, resulting in the death of at least six people. The Madhya Pradesh pollution watchdog sought an interim compensation of INR 100 million (USD 1.34 million) from the company and asked it to start remedial and restoration work within 14 days. Similarly, in October 2019, a coal ash dyke breach in State-owned utility NTPC’s Vindhyachal Thermal Power Plant in Madhya Pradesh led to more than 3.5 million tonnes of fly ash flowing into the Govind Vallabh Pant Sagar, also known as the Rihand reservoir. The reservoir, the only source of potable water for people in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh, was contaminated, making the water unfit for drinking.
NGT asked NTPC to pay an interim compensation of INR 100 million and directed the Anpara and Lanco-Anpara power plants in the vicinity to stop ash pond overflow discharge into the Rihand reservoir. But such instances of immediate legal cognisance and reprimand are rare. Climate change heightens the risk from coal ash ponds in areas prone to flooding. In addition to the increased risk of spills, scientists say the heavier rains expected to come from a warming planet also threaten to bring a more hidden peril — rising water tables that seep into the ash ponds, contaminating groundwater used for agriculture and drinking, that can, in turn, affect a much larger population. Annual fly ash generation from Indian coal power plants rose to 217 million tonnes in 2018–19 from 123 million tonnes in 2009–10. The legacy fly ash in India stood at 1.6 billion tonnes as of March 2019. From 2012–13 to 2016–17, the quantity of fly ash utilised has remained stagnant at around 100 million tonnes; however, during the same period, the annual generation of fly ash has been above the 150 million tonne mark, which indicates a huge pile-up. Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh lead in fly ash generation, followed by West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.
The majority of them belongs to NTPC Limited, Chhattisgarh State Power Generation Company Limited (CSPGCL), Madhya Pradesh Power Generation Company Limited (MPPGCL) and MahaGENCO (in Maharashtra). Coal-fired power plants in West Bengal have been exporting their fly ash to Bangladesh for this purpose. The problem with that is that barges used to transport the ash have a high capsize rate. Fly ash is the residue left after coal is burnt in thermal power plants, and poses grave risks to our health and environment. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest sources of fly ash, which contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, nickel and lead, among others. These are known to cause cancer, lung and heart ailments and neurological damage, and contribute to premature mortality. Despite several policy and regulatory interventions, coal ash management in India remains a challenge. Coal ash is not classified as hazardous waste, and thus there are no guidelines to regulate its disposal or measure the leaching of chemicals from it into water bodies and groundwater.
Fly ash can be used to make bricks, as part of road-building material and to make cement, but the utilisation has lagged far behind potential in India. If not anything, India should at least develop regulations for the scientific containment of pond ash. This would require retrofitting existing ash ponds with impermeable materials and linking the scientific landfilling of ash with environmental clearances. This would also entail a rigorous environmental monitoring protocol around the fly ash dumps to check for leachate and contamination of groundwater. It is estimated that by 2021-22, the sector will produce 300 million tonnes of fly ash every year. By the way, CSE recommends that India puts stringent air quality norms in place on par with global standards, water tariffs should be increased to check excess water use by the industries, old inefficient plants should be closed and stiff penalties should be imposed wherever the companies are not complying with the pollution norms.