Coal plants continue to poison those surrounding them in developing countries

November 27, 2015

“No one dries their washing outside round here,” said Dr KK Aggarwal, who runs a clinic in the town of Anpara, the site of four big plants, two of them old and two extremely new – the newest, Anpara D, began to come on stream this month. “Many of my patients suffer from respiratory problems, such as asthma, nasal conditions, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There are also skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.” He is convinced the incidence of such conditions is higher than it should be because of the mines and power plants. “Pollution is everywhere.”

Some of Singrauli’s mine and power plant operators have already taken elaborate steps to reduce discharges into the air and water. Gigantic water sprayers and closed conveyor belts carrying coal from mine to power station keep dust to a minimum. The chimneys at the newest stations, Anpara C and D, and the nearby “super critical” plant run by the private firm Reliance, India’s biggest company, emit no visible smoke at all – and use only three-quarters as much coal as older stations.

Elsewhere, however, the noxious odour of coal dust hangs in the air, and after a few minutes outside, one senses gritty particles in the recesses of one’s mouth and throat. Some of the mines still ship their coal in open trucks, coating roadside trees, ground and buildings in layers of black grime. One of the worst places is the huge yard on the outskirts of Singrauli town, where loads are transferred from the trucks to railway wagons. At the yard entrance there’s a mini-roundabout, adorned with a seven-metre sculpture of a clenched fist, a monument to India’s trade unions. The fist, once red, is stained the deepest black.

Since 2010, the Indian government has designated Singrauli a “critically polluted area”. In 2012, Delhi’s prestigious Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) tested Singrauli’s water supplies, along with fish from local reservoirs, human blood and hair samples. In all, the study found high levels of mercury: in one village, water from pumps contained 26 times the maximum safe limit laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Some of the hair samples had five times the “safe” concentration, while the fish contained twice the recommended level.

The CSE study also found high incidences of vitiligo, shivers, impaired vision, and burning sensation in the limbs, all recognised effects of mercury. Continued exposure, the study reported, might lead to depression, memory loss, and kidney damage. Chandra Bushan, the CSE’s deputy director and one of the study’s authors, told me the source of the mercury was evident: “fly ash” from Singrauli’s power plants.

Fly ash has its uses – for example, in making cement. But for decades, untold thousands of tonnes have been collected from the chimneys, mixed with water and then discharged into the Singrauli environment in the form of grey slurry, left to dry and blow about in vast, open air “ash decks”.

Filthiest of all is the treatment of ash from Anpara A, commissioned in 1987, and Anpara B, which began to generate power seven years later. From the plants, a row of pipes carries the slurry to a series of huge ponds, where the ash is supposed to settle out. But the system does not work. From the third and final pond, the milky, polluted liquid tumbles over a grey cascade into the Rihand reservoir, the source of drinking water for the entire Singrauli region. Where the slurry meets the blue reservoir waters, there is a clear and visible boundary. Once the ash is in the reservoir, there is no way to get rid of it.

In one of the ponds, Ram Pri, a landless Adivasi, was up to his waist in liquid muck, sieving out the ash in order to decant it into 33kg bags, which are used to make cement. He said he gets paid Rs50 – about 50p – per bag, and by this perilous, toxic labour, can make Rs200–300 a day. His wife used to help him, “but she can’t any longer: her feet, her knees and ankles are all swollen. She’s not able to walk. Maybe that’s because of what’s in the water.”

His is not the only local family to have derived little benefit from the Singrauli coal and power boom. For more than 20 years, several thousand mainly Adivasi people have been living in Simplex, a concrete shanty town adjoining the perimeter wall of the 4.7GW Vindhyachal power plant – one of the biggest in India. The colony was built to house workers who built the plant’s early phases, and its high-voltage output lines run directly overhead.

Astonishingly, Simplex is still not connected to the electricity grid. Its first “reverse osmosis” water treatment unit opened only eight months ago. Until then, said Anjani Kumar Chaubey, a local activist, “we used to get severe gastric problems. The water we took from our handpumps made your skin sting, and in the monsoon, it contained worms. The whole of India gets electricity from this plant, but we are like the darkness around a candle. How can our children study? Sometimes, when there is a lot of wind, the whole area gets covered with ash. A lot of our people get sick.”

In Chilkantanbasti, where 7,000 people live close to a 35-year old coal plant at Shaktinagar, run by the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation, there is electricity. But the air is some of the region’s dirtiest: “A man gets up here in the morning and he eats coal dust,” said Umar Kand, 19. “He goes to bed at night, and he’s eating coal dust still. If you put anything out anything out round here, it will have a film of ash within an hour.” The streets stink also of sewage: there is no sanitation, and despite a promise by NTPC two years ago, no water treatment unit. There are three public toilets, but none of them work. Kand shrugged: “We go in the forest.”

Chilkatanbasti is exposed to another hazard. There are now strict rules governing the landscaping and afforestation of mine overburden piles, which must be split into tiers and divided by broad, flat “benches”, with no slope steeper than 37 degrees. When a giant pile from the Kharia mine that looms over the village was created, these rules did not exist, and the result is a tottering brown mountain, its slopes strewn with boulders the size of cars, its surface deeply etched by the water channels that form each monsoon.

“When it rains, material comes down towards us,” said Renu, a local woman who preferred not to give her surname. “The police have even come to tell us we should evacuate our houses in case it slips. I’ve seen the rocks falling down the slopes. If it ever went altogether, it would be like a tsunami. But how can we leave our homes?”