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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.