EAC approves new guidelines for fly ash disposal in abandoned mines and low lying areas: A quick review

File Photo: Fly ash slurry being disposed into abandoned mine in Odisha ( (November 2015)
Credits: Jinda Sandbhor/Manthan Adhyayan Kendra

The Expert Appraisal Committee (Thermal) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had a special meeting on 12th July 2019. One of the two items discussed in this meeting was ‘Review of Guidelines prepared by CPCB and CIMFR for Flyash disposal in low lying areas & abandoned mines and review of conditions prescribed in the Environmental Clearance of Thermal Power Projects in line with the Flyash Notification.’ The new guidelines will have a bearing on all thermal power plants in the country. Manthan reviewed the meeting minutes pertaining to said guidelines and made some observations.

Background: A look at Environment Clearance (EC) conditions stipulated for thermal power plants over the last few years reveals that MoEFCC has, more often than not, given EC conditions which explicitly state that fly ash is not to be used for reclamation of low lying areas or in agriculture. With regards to filling of mine voids, EAC has allowed it but in a limited manner, more or less as pilot projects, rather than as the norm. This Special Meeting of the EAC was held to re-examine the directions so far in relation to use of fly ash in low lying areas and abandoned mine voids. The following are some of our observations about the new guidelines.

  1. No environmental parameters to be monitored for low lying areas: The guidelines provide a methodology for disposal of fly ash into mine voids and low lying areas. For disposal of fly ash into mine voids, the guidelines also enlist a set of environmental parameters to be monitored during, before and after. The parameters include collection of ash samples, ash leachate analysis, survey of flora and fauna among others. For disposal of ash by ‘reclamation’ of low lying areas however, no such tests are mandated. This discrepancy raises concerns of potential harmful impacts of fly ash use for reclamation of low lying areas.
  2. No mention of need for lining of mine voids: In the minutes of an earlier meeting of the EAC (Thermal) dated 28th May 2019, the committee notes the different Environmental Clearance conditions issued to TPPs with regards to fly ash disposal into mine voids. One recurring aspect in all such conditions is the need for lining the old mines/mine voids in question with a suitable layer of clay/other non-permeable material to prevent leaching of any kind. The guidelines reviewed by the committee in the latest meeting however have no mention of any such layer. No reason is noted or mentioned for relaxation of this condition in the new guidelines.
  3. Water related issues: More than once the guidelines point to the need for keeping the top layer of fly ash/soil ‘moist’ via water sprinkling as a precaution against dust and air pollution (dust suppression). While this measure is deemed necessary in many similar scenarios, e.g. fly ash ponds, coal stockyards etc., the quantity of water to be used for disposal of ash basically increases. Majority of coal combustion residue in India is disposed by mixing it with water in the form of slurry; ash disposal in India and water use are intrinsically linked. The guidelines note that “Mode of transportation to mine voids shall be through pipeline using pneumatic conveying system, pipeline using wet disposal/lean or high concentration slurry disposal, dumpers/trucks, Merry Go Round (MGR) System and Belt Conveyors in case of dry disposal“. The same guidelines towards the end also specify that, “All the power plants should install different silos for dry collection of flyash.” However, the minutes further state, “The committee also noted that the disposal of ash in the mine voids shall be through wet disposal only so that air pollution is controlled due to dry disposal. Further, the top of the disposal area should always be kept moist to prevent air borne dust.” On one hand the guidelines state the need for dry collection and silos and transport via belt conveyors in case of dry disposal, but on the other hand they specify that ash shall only be disposed into abandoned mines wet, in the form of slurry. Whether these are contradictory claims or intentionally ambiguous guidelines, they don’t provide clarity on the exact manner in which ash disposal into mine voids is being suggested to be carried out. This has a bearing not just on the scope of utilisation of ash, but also extent of water requirements for such disposal as well as implications on the pollution of surrounding areas.
  4. Fly ash use in agriculture: There are two instances where the committee mentions the potential for use of fly ash in agriculture. The first is, “W.r.t. application of fly ash in agriculture as soil conditioner, the suitable quantities are to be recommended by the State Agricultural Universities and a certificate to that effect is to be obtained. Only, then the ash is to be applied in the agriculture fields.” The second, similar statement is, “Flyash to be used as soil conditioner in agriculture needs and to be applied in controlled manner to limit excessive application so as to prevent soil degradation. The optimize proportion of ash to be applied which is to be certified by the State Agricultural Universities/Colleges based on the soil testing.” Two points regarding this mention. One, these are guidelines meant for use of fly ash in low lying areas and abandoned mines. Why the use in agriculture is subtly being brought into this particular set of guidelines is unclear. Further, and more importantly, both points only mention a need to assess the appropriate quantities of fly ash to be used. There is no mention of conducting studies or getting certification for confirming the safety of utilisation of fly ash in agriculture. Fly ash has different levels of heavy metals and radioactive traces depending on the makeup of its source coal. To encourage its use in agriculture without mandating source specific studies seems like a risky move by a committee of ‘experts.’ While the Fly Ash Notification (2016) allows the use of fly ash in agriculture, the EAC itself has on several occasions raised doubts on the same and has stopped power plants from using it by stipulating EC conditions stating so. Similar conditions for use of fly ash by disposal into mine voids and reclamation of low lying areas are being reversed by way of these guidelines. But this is being done after certain study by CPCB and CIMFR, even though these guidelines require more scrutiny. In the case of ash use in agriculture however, there does not seem to be any such attempt to study and prepare guidelines. One wonders how the EAC is reversing its own decisions without any seemingly sound basis.
  5. Overarching loopholes: It is imperative to highlight the fact that according to the meeting minutes, the EAC has decided to accept the guidelines as given by CPCB/CIMFR and make changes to ECs of thermal power plants accordingly. Two main questions arise from this. Can EC letters issued previously be modified in this way in a blanket move, or is there a need for plant by plant scrutiny looking at their locations, water availability, etc. Further, all ECs are accorded after considering the input of local communities via the mechanism of public hearings. So, can such a change in EC, which will have far reaching impact locally, be made without consulting the people who stand to be affected? It is not just the EC letter that stands to change though. The Final Mine Closure Plans for instance, involve directions on nature and extent of backfilling to be carried out in abandoned/old mines and mine voids. If these guidelines are to be approved by the Ministry, then where do such existing plans stand?
Fly ash disposed in ‘low lying area’ about 500m from Khaparkheda TPP (seen in background) in Maharashtra (May 2019)
Credits: Sehr Raheja/Manthan Adhyayan Kendra

Concluding remarks:
It is crucial to note that these guidelines are likely to have far reaching impacts on local people living in the proximity of mines and/or ‘low lying areas’. They must first be put in the public domain for comments and review. Even the Expert Appraisal Committee cannot unilaterally ‘approve’ guidelines and go ahead with amending ECs thereof. These need to be looked at in light of overall comments on the guidelines prior to them being accepted and adopted. Further, before they can be applied to individual TPPs to change ECs, specific comments for each plant situation needs to be obtained from local communities as well as civil society groups – as is done during a public hearing.

Note: Manthan Adhyayan Kendra has written to CPCB and CIMFR requesting a copy of the guidelines in entirety. This blog post was written on the basis of examination of meeting minutes of EAC which give salient features of the guidelines in question. Further updates shall be made once the original guidelines have been sought.

Link to Meeting Minutes: http://environmentclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/Form-1A/Minutes/1907201930th%20MoM_Thermal%20Power%20Projects.pdf

Of Adani, coal and development: Hasdeo Arand, a case in point

Hasdeo Arand forest, Saraguja disrict, Chhattisgarh. Photo: Vaishnavi Suresh

Parsa coal block, one of 30 in the Hasdeo Arand coalfield recently came one step closer to getting environmental clearance. The minutes of the Expert Appraisal Committee’s (EAC) meeting held on 21st February 2019 state that the proposal was ‘recommended’ for getting Environmental Clearance. If successfully sought, this will be the third mine to open (after Chotia and Parsa East Kete Basan) in what was once declared a ‘No Go’ area for coal mining in Chhattisgarh. The opening up of this mine in core forest area could have deleterious consequences for the people, forest and river of Hasdeo.

A visit for work to Chhattisgarh led me to India’s largest intact dense forest area, Hasdeo Arand, spanning across the northern Korba and Sarguja districts. The low hills, sal trees and clear skies make Hasdeo an environmentalist’s dream. Madanpur (where I stayed) is an adivasi village falling in the heart of this Gondwana belt. All along the route from Raipur, you are welcomed by forest cover on either side of NH 130. But among the seemingly endless forest, one also sees stone markers and barbed wire, demarcating forest patches that form parts of existing coal blocks.

Coal sourced from Parsa East Kete Basan (PEKB), one of two operational mines (other being Chotia), located in Hasdeo has been linked to Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNL) since 2011 for thermal power projects in Rajasthan. The contract for Mine Developer and Operator was given to Adani Enterprises.  Parsa, the latest to get clearance is contiguous to PEKB and Tara coal blocks. All three lie in the Hasdeo Arand Coalfields. But the forest with more than 1,70,000 hectares of dense cover is home to a lot more than just fossil fuel reserves.

Barbed wire demarcating PEKB mine expansion runs through elephant corridor. Photo: Vaishnavi Suresh

Elders from the villages of Sarguja and Korba speak of their younger days as the glory days of the forest. Much has changed, and not all of it positively so. Bhagirati Sinh*, aged 62, has lived in Khirti village for over 40 years. “Earlier we used to make amla (gooseberry) chutney and eat. When that tree bore the amla fruit in season, it bore fruit in abundance; we would use it with everything- as good as our use of salt! And we used to sell and get good money also. We sold tendu, char and amla… but amla is basically over now. Even Mahua and tendu have reduced so much. Now, three of us pluck 400 leaves with difficulty. Whereas earlier, one person used to pluck 400 herself!”

A similar sentiment echoes nearby. Sundar Ram*, a 55 year old resident of Madanpur village says,“ Earlier, there used to be dense forest cover.  My grandparents and father told me there were so many trees here in Madanpur that there used to be herds of elephants too. They’ve mostly disappeared from here now –if the jungle is gone then where will they stay? Our situation is somewhat similar. We’re forest dwellers, if the jungle eventually disappears, where will we stay?”

When PEKB was granted Stage II Forest Clearance, one of the conditions stated that “the State Government shall not put forth any new proposals to open the main Hasdeo Arand any further for mining purposes.” 841 hectares of forest land is due to be diverted for the new Parsa coal block. Parsa lies in core forest area.

That Hasdeo is different today from two decades ago can be attributed to a host of different factors, natural and manmade. But coal mining (existing and upcoming) in an ecosystem that is fragile and crucial to all of Chhattisgarh’s rainfall, only exacerbates the threats.

Over 80 years old, Laxminath* is a resident of Paturiadand, Korba district. He tells us about the Karma Tyohar, a Gond festival that marks new harvests and involves customary dance and music. “We used to celebrate Karma with a lot of gusto back in the day. The men would dance in one line, and the women opposite them. A group would play instruments made from animal skin and sing while some danced. I remember, if a man wanted to get into the women’s line and dance with them, he would have to wear a costume on his waist. It would be like a skirt made from real peacock and other feathers, only then he could try and change lines… but there are hardly any peacocks left in this forest now! And anyway everyone wants to dance to these “DJs” now… but yes…”

Such conversations help bring into focus the Gond community’s intrinsic relationship with the forest. Yet, Laxminath tells us before we leave that his son in law works in Adani’s coal mine (PEKB). With agricultural and forest land diverted for mines, employment (albeit temporary) obviously assumes priority for the people.There are few people who have lost land working in the mines from almost every village, but not even all of them. There is no job security, and alternative options are limited.

When asked about whereabouts of the people who lost their homes and ancestral land to PEKB, all the villagers we had a chance to interact with categorically said they do not have a clue. “I don’t know where they have gone. They built some houses for the people, but if you see the houses you will also not want to live there. They are like cages made of concrete. For a person from the forest who is used to living in open spaces, it is ridiculous to expect them to be happy in that colony. Most of the people who were allocated those homes have left them, gone to other districts and villages, and maybe some of them are dead, who knows,” Josephine* told me, a local community volunteer with Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HASS), and resident of Morga village.

On visiting this resettlement colony, we met two individuals. One was a boy aged 18. He works at the mine as a blasting machine operator and lives with two others. “I get paid Rs. 10,000 per month. There is a thekedaar (contractor) who gives us the salary.” Open cast mines (like PEKB and Parsa) form the majority of India’s coal mines. Like the youth in the resettlement colony, mine workers employed by private contractors get paid nearly three times lesser than their government employed counterparts, according to this article in the Asian Age.

The entrance of the colony is marked by a small bus stop. The top has the logo of Sarguja Zila Khanij Sansthan Nyas (translates to Sarguja District Mineral Foundation Trust) and below it, reads “khanan se sabka vikas”, or “development for all through mining.” The people displaced by the coal mine and the standard of living in the resettlement colony paint a different picture.

The Gond people’s farmlands, houses, forest land and grazing commons  – land from all categories has been taken for the mine. None of the benefits of the mining accruing to the local people is bad, but added to that is coal dust pollution, water pollution, extremely disproportionate employment opportunities and impacts on their health. Despite a 32% tribal population, economic interests being favoured over adivasi issues in Chhattisgarh is unfortunately not uncommon.

The forests of central India comprise both natural and cultural ecosystems and Gond people have long been at the heart of this. Stretches of land that have served as elephant corridors and kept man animal conflict at bay for decades were disturbed when mining commenced in PEKB. There has been a notable increase in the number of ‘attacks’ that have occurred in villages closest to the mine, Shivnath* and Parvati* tell us. Their new house is less than 500m from the coal mine; originally, it used to be where the mine stands now. “We put those bricks there to fill up the hole. Two elephants attacked our village one week ago. Nobody was hurt. If there was a light here we could’ve seen them before they broke into our house maybe. Before the mine, elephants used to walk through the jungle. Now there are no trees, where will they walk? We don’t have electricity here. We have a tubewell connection, but without electricity it doesn’t work. We were given a generator, but the diesel to operate it is too expensive. We used to cultivate rice earlier. Now we make baskets and mats out of bamboo (‘basod ka kaam’). Two of our sons work in the mine. They gave the job because they took our land. What’s the point? ”

State and Central government authorities have categorically denied the existence of such corridors despite increased elephant run ins and warning signs telling people to “beware of elephants” adorning the forest. Lemru elephant reserve was proposed to reduce the problem of man- animal conflict. But it stood on 40 MTPA reserves of coal that would have been ‘blocked’ if it came up. PEKB is one such mine that is operational now.

Impacts of the mine go even further, the effect on water being a major concern. Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan says, “the Hasdeo river is extremely polluted at the moment. Waste from coal mines is let into the same river from which they source the water, and that affects all the ecosystems and livelihoods directly dependant on the river. The fish are practically over now. Chhattisgarh has a steadily increasing number of privatised rivers, and industrial projects affecting them are also high.”  The Hasdeo river system is a primary source of water for irrigation and domestic use for thousands of locals. Sailhi naala, located midway between Hariharapur and Parsa villages flows with moderate amount of water in peak summer. It flows to river Atem, a tributary of Hasdeo. It flows from the mining lease area. It used to be a perennial water source earlier, but the natural flow has been badly affected. For expansion of PEKB, in fact, it has now been diverted too. Pollution from the mine and coal washeries add to the burden of water resources of the region.

When the ‘No Go’ status for PEKB was revoked against Forest Advisory Committee’s (FAC) recommendations, it was also pointed out that the total number of trees to be felled for this was 95,458 and that PEKB was an area sensitive to erosion. It is imperative to note that the FAC recommendation was overridden; consequently paving the way the for opening up of new blocks like Parsa and therefore Hasdeo Arand’s slow but steady demise.

To that effect, the recommendation for environmental clearance accorded to Parsa open cast mine is a huge blow to the people and movements on the ground. There are 995 families that will be affected by the new coal mine.  Out of the total, 584 will lose (agricultural) land, and 411 will lose their homes as well as land. The loss of natural habitat for animals, or of native species of plants in forests, and issues of the Gond people losing ancestral land are all interconnected. Adding Parsa to the list of operational coal mines in the forest of Hasdeo is history waiting to repeat itself.

Note: * Names of the people of Hasdeo have been changed for security reasons.