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The price of power
It is a landscape of spent energy. Grey, bleak, never ending. To see it is to face the real cost of power. Unlike combustion gases that escape unseen, fly ash, or burnt embers of coal, has texture, colour and the ability to suck both breath and life. Dumped over raised ground stretching for miles, it burdens the earth, rises in the air as whirlwinds, and over time leaches into water.
Or, as it often happens in Chhattisgarh's Korba, it dramatically spills, as rainwater pushes open the floodgates of the fly ash dam, carrying toxic sludge into fields, lives and homes. This is what nearly happened on September 7.
A crack developed in the spillway of the National Thermal Power Corporation's (NTPC's ) fly ash dam in Dhanras village. Contaminated water flowed into fields, but stopped short of homes. Any more rain, and heaps of ash could have come crumbling down.
While farmers have been promised compensation by the company for crop loss, the impact of the spillage goes beyond that, they say. It has underlined the precariousness of their modest existence in the shadow of a giant toxic yard.
September's spillage would have gone unnoticed, but in a bizarre way it rippled across five states, as production at four units of NTPC closed down. Until the company repaired the spillway, it could not produce power, since it had no place to dispose the tonnes of ash that would emerge as an inevitable byproduct. By forcing closure of production, the collapsed wall achieved what years of local activism had not: it exposed the flawed and dangerous ways in which power companies were handling fly ash.
Located in north Chhattisgarh, Korba is one of India's coal hotspots, with millions of tonnes of coal excavated from gigantic mines every year. "Seven power companies burn coal to generate 6, 000 megawatts of electricity, " says BS Thakur, the regional officer of the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board (CECB), the government's regulatory body. "This generates one lakh metric tonnes of fly ash every year. "
NTPC alone produces 5. 6 million metric tonnes of fly ash every year. The first power company to set up base in Korba, it began with one unit of 200 MW in 1983. Over the years, it expanded capacity to 2, 100 MW, and in March 2011, it added a new unit of 500 MW, taking total capacity to 2, 600 MW.
"While it has been adding power generating capacity, NTPC has not added new areas for ash disposal, " says Laxmi Chauhan, a Korba-based activist who runs Sarthak, an environmental group.
In a prescient letter in December 2010, Chauhan pointed out why this was dangerous. He wrote to Chhattisgarh's environment minister to protest the grant of 'permission to operate' to the NTPC's new unit. "The carrying capacity of the existing ash dam at Dhanras has long been exceeded, " the letter stated, adding that any more dumping of ash at the site would not be sustainable. The dark prophecy came true when the spillway burst under the pressure of accumulating ash and rainwater.
Other companies fare no better, contend local activists. The aluminium company Balco, owned by mining giant Vedanta, has built the fly ash dam of its captive power plant on a red mud pond, where it had been dumping toxic residues produced while extracting alumina from bauxite. "To dump fly ash on top of an existing red mud pond is to invite disaster, " said Sudiep Srivastava, another Chhattisgarh-based activist.
Indeed, last year in August, Balco's dam breached, spilling ash in a water stream. The stream was not far away from human habitation;in fact it was inside Korba's municipal limits. It was common to see children of Prem Nagar, a locality on the banks on the stream, frolicking in ashen water, and women drawing bucketsful for domestic use. Balco's spokesperson said the breach was an 'unforeseen accident', and added that the company was doing its best to repair it. "But such breaches will continue to occur if companies are allowed to build power plants without provisioning adequate and proper land for fly ash disposal, " argues Srivastava.
According to a report published by the Central Electricity Authority in 2004-05, "Due to enormous quantity of ash content in Indian coal, approximately 1 acre land per megawatt of installed thermal capacity is required". But as the environment impact assessment (EIA) reports of several upcoming power plants in Chhattisgarh show, companies have not stuck to the recommended ratio. One of the biggest power projects in the region, a 3, 600-MW plant by KSK Energy ventures in neighbouring Janjgir Champa district, is being built on just 2, 050 acres, as per its EIA report.
The companies on their part plead helplessness. They say it has become increasingly difficult to acquire land. For instance, an NTPC spokesperson stated in an email response that the company had planned a new ash dam over 413 acres, "but due to delay in land acquisition, construction of new ash dam got delayed".
However, on the ground, it is not hard to fathom why the company is facing land acquisition hurdles. The site of the proposed ash dam is spread over five villages of Churikala panchayat, right next to the existing ash dam at Dhanras.
"Why should we give the company more land?" says Vinod Pandey, a resident of Churikala. "We are already facing enough pollution on account of the existing one. Every summer, whirlwinds of ash billow and poison our fields, our homes, our lives. "
The middle aged man, in his 50s, has turned a crusader against power companies that he says are destroying his village. Apart from mobilising protests, he has filed a petition in the high court against Vandana Vidyut Limited, a private company that is building a 540-MW power plant, not too far from NTPC's ash dam. In the same area, another company, Dhiru Power, is also constructing another power plant.
"How much pollution can one area take? Why should we pay the price for generating power for the rest of the country?" says Pandey indignantly.
Korba is the fifth most critically polluted area in India, according to a Central Pollution Control Board study. That has not stopped newer power plants cropping up in the district and older ones from expanding, a trend that is only likely to deepen the crisis of fly ash.
In sharp contrast, this year, America's largest public power company, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), scaled down operations after a series of lawsuits held it responsible for polluting both land and water with toxic fly ash. The protests against the company built up over time but an ash spill in 2008 finally nailed it.
Would that ever happen in Chhattisgarh? At least not in the near future, given India's energy needs and a consensus in the government that coal-fired thermal plants are the best bet to meet them. Which means the poor in Korba must live and fight their own battles against the toxic grey embers that threaten to consume their lives.
BENDING THE RULES
Given the magnitude of the ash disposal problem, the ministry of environment and forests has framed strict guidelines for fly ash disposal. As per a notification issued in 1997, thermal power plants operating in critical polluted areas must use coal with ash content less than 34 per cent. Another bunch of guidelines issued in 1999, amended in 2003, stipulated that companies should give fly ash for free to construction companies of the area, which in turn should mandatorily use it to build bricks and walls. But as records show, both these guidelines are being violated in Korba.
HOW TOXIC IS FLY ASH?
A series of studies over the last few decades has thrown up a surprising conclusion: the waste produced by coal plants is more radioactive than that generated at nuclear power plants. The studies say fly ash emitted by a power plant carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. Critics, however, say there isn't enough evidence to support this argument, and that the dangers of fly ash have been greatly exaggerated.
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