Impacts on water: Quick look at the Coal Cycle


I have been attempting to understand coal-related issues for a few years now. For a meeting conducted recently, I was to prepare a brief note on our (Manthan’s) insights on some of the environmental impacts of coal-based electricity generation in India. I decided to share the note here, both to document the articulation of my understanding – anchored in the work that Manthan has done over the years – and to revive this blog with a post I believe could be useful for anyone interested in coal pollution in India.

The text of the note (with minor changes) is reproduced below.

Coal, Water, and Ash

The impacts of coal-based electricity generation on water are many. These can be seen at every stage of the coal cycle – from mining, washing, and transport of coal, to its burning in thermal power plants, and subsequent generation of coal ash. Listed here (in brief) are some insights on the same.

  • Excessive Water Usage
    Coal-fired thermal power plants (TPPs) require large amounts of water to operate, accounting for close to 70% of all water used for industrial purposes in India. Given this, TPPs can cause significant water stress in local areas, especially when present in clusters. For a detailed breakup of the various water uses by TPPs see this report by the Central Electricity Authority.
Singaji TPP and a polluted stream, Madhya Pradesh 2018 (Photo:Sehr)
  • Widespread Non – Compliance with Water Use Norms
    – In December 2015, The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) introduced, for the first time, limits on how much water a plant can use per unit of electricity generated, i.e., ‘specific water consumption’ limits. Information obtained previously under the Right to Information Act (2005) revealed that despite legally binding limits and a two-year deadline to meet them, only about 51% of TPPs in the country were actually in compliance with the law.
    – The same notification also introduced the mandate of ‘Zero Wastewater Discharge’ by TPPs, presumably in an attempt to mitigate some of the pollution impacts. Similar data revealed lax compliance, and information on compliance was scattered and inconsistent. The pollution control boards do not seem to have made complete monitoring information on these laws available in the public domain yet.
  •  Water Pollution, Depletion
     – The operation of coal mines and washeries massively affects local ecosystems and communities. Negative impacts on the quantity and quality of important water sources have been documented across the country. Depletion of or falling groundwater levels, and drying of surface water sources due to dewatering effect of coal mines is common. Discharge of pollutants and wastewater streams from mines and washeries, and widespread coal dust cause water contamination
    – From TPPs, contamination of surface and groundwater due to leaching and overflow of pollutants from ash ponds and ash dumps, and deliberate discharge of ash (slurry) into closest surface water systems has been common. Coal ash and coal dust also settles on domestic water storage containers, ponds etc.
    – Disruption of surface water such as nalas or streams by ‘diversion’ for mines and plants is also common, often causing them to dry up completely
    – In a study co-authored by Manthan (with Centre for Sustainable Development, Asar Social Impact Advisors Pvt. Ltd.) in November 2021, groundwater and surface water sampling in the vicinity of two state-owned TPPs in Maharashtra found that almost every water sample failed to pass Indian drinking water standards. It further found that the plants discharged effluents directly into local streams and rivers, and leakages from ash ponds all contaminated the surface and groundwater sources of the region. The presence of elements like antimony, aluminium, arsenic, boron, fluoride, iron, manganese, magnesium, mercury, molybdenum, lithium, lead and selenium was found at levels exceeding relevant water standards.

Lakhanpur Open Cast Coal Mine of Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd., Odisha 2019 (Photo: Sehr)
  • Coal Ash Pollution, Mismanagement
    – The coal ash (flyash and bottom ash) from TPPs also causes extensive country-wide pollution. It is known to contain toxic heavy metals, which pose threats to the health of people and the environment affected by them.
    – In addition to its toxic nature, the quantities of coal ash generated by plants annually is colossal. The lack of adequate ash disposal and management infrastructure has meant several accidents with long term consequences are frequent. A report co-authored by Manthan (with Asar Social Impact Advisors Pvt. Ltd., Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air on behalf of Flyash Watch Group) in July 2021 recorded the detailed status of eight coal ash accidents (ash pond breaches, deliberate discharge of ash into water bodies, pipeline leaks) that have occurred over the last two years. Subpar technical design and lackadaisical management of ash were found to be two important causes of the accidents. One such breach claimed six lives. Most of these accidents leave acres of farmland and homes covered in ash slurry, with delayed compensation and clean-up being the norm.
    – Ash affects entities in proximity to power plants in more ways than accidents. Airbourne flyash settles on fields and homes, and due to its particle size is a respirable toxin linked with breathing and other health issues. It also settles on water bodies, rendering many sources unfit for use. Further, ash settles on standing crops posing threats to health and livelihoods of farmers and communities. The mixing of ash with water for transport for disposal is another route of exposure – leaky pipelines, and indiscriminate dumping of slurry in rivers and streams is frequent. The large-scale dumping of ash in ‘mounds’ or for “reclamation” of low-lying areas are some examples of how power plant and government authorities both allow unchecked pollution in the name of ash ‘utilisation’. The possibility of leaching of heavy metals from (often unlined) ash ponds and dumps into groundwater is also a concern.
Close up of semi-dry ash slurry, Tenughat TPS ash pond, Jharkhand 2022 (Photo: Sehr)
  • Flyash Utilization Notification (FAN), December 2021
    The MoEFCC introduced the new FAN few months ago. It is the primary law pertaining to the roles and responsibilities for the management and utilization of ash. It also covers (rather inadequately) some of the environmental issues associated with ash. Though the notification introduces some positive additions, such as the mandate to utilize legacy ash, and the introduction of fines for defaulters, it fails to distinguish between ‘use’ and ‘disposal’ of ash, and provides loopholes for TPPs to avoid serious consequences in the way of fines/penalties. It also ambiguously categorizes several problematic uses of ash as ‘eco-friendly’, such as dumping in low-lying areas, thus providing the legal sanction for continued ash pollution. Detailed comments have been submitted by various groups (including Manthan) highlighting these and other issues with the new FAN.
  • Notification, Guidelines for the use of Flyash in Abandoned Mine Voids, Low Lying Areas
    In 2018 the MoEFCC introduced an OM pushing for the use of ash in abandoned coal mines and low-lying areas. It was introduced with guidelines issued by the Central Pollution Control Board detailing steps for the same, as well as a direction to allow the blanket reversal of all existing Environmental Clearance conditions presently prohibiting the use of ash via these two modes. An ongoing investigation by Manthan has revealed the lack of sufficient environmental safeguards, procedural gaps (of actual dumping of ash as well as obtaining clearances from authorities), possibly inadequate assessment of risks to environment from these modes, and other issues. These include but aren’t limited to – the potential for leaching of toxic heavy metals from ash-filled mine voids into groundwater, and the dumping of large quantities of ash in areas declared as ‘low-lying’ likely to contaminate soil and groundwater.
Piles of flyash for ‘reclamation’ of ‘abandoned’ mine void of CCL, Jharkhand 2022 (Photo: Sehr)

Gare Pelma II Environmental Clearance on hold due to submission of false, incomplete information by MAHAGENCO

The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) constituted by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) held its latest coal mining division meeting on 5th December, 2019. One of the items discussed in the EAC meeting was the application for Environmental Clearance for Gare Pelma Sector II coal mine by Maharashtra State Power Generation Company Ltd. (MAHAGENCO). The committee neither rejected nor recommended the proposal, for want of more information, and merely ‘decided to return the proposal in its present form, and has asked for clarification/inputs,’ on multiple fronts. The reason behind the decision however, is more grave than the committee’s grossly inadequate reaction will have one believe, i.e., submission of false, incorrect and incomplete data by the project proponent, MAHAGENCO.

False Information Submitted
Gare Pelma II coal block is a part of the Raigarh Coalfield situated in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh. The coal linkage is for captive use in certain units of MAHAGENCO’s Chandrapur, Koradi and Parli Thermal Power Plants located in Maharashtra. The Mine Developer and Operator is Adani Enterprises. The Gare Pelma II proposal discussed in the 5th December meeting of EAC was for seeking recommendation for obtaining environmental clearance (EC) from MoEFCC. EC is a pre-requisite for commencing operations for any industrial project. Prior to obtaining EC, project proponents are required to submit information pertaining to operation details and potential impacts on environment, including but not limited to a Form 1, sometimes Form 2*, an Environmental Impact Assessment Report, etc.

According to the EAC meeting minutes, ” 51.1.4 The EAC after deliberation observed that the project proponent in a haste of submission before validity of baseline data, submitted incomplete and incorrect Form#2 on the Ministry website for appraisal (PARIVESH). The EAC, during deliberations noted that the project details mentioned in the EIA report were not consistent with that presented during the meeting. EAC advised to the PP/Consultant that the EIA Report shall be made appropriately with the provisions of the EIA Notification, 2006 and various OM/Circulars issued by the Ministry from time to time. The EAC, after detailed deliberations decided to return the proposal in its present form, and has asked for clarification/inputs, in respect of the following:-

Over 20 different types of information has been sought by the committee. The list includes a revised Environmental Impact Assessment study to be submitted in line with the law, corrected Form#2, a month of baselines data as baseline data so submitted is almost three years old, study on impact of mining on hydrology of the region, carrying capacity study of the area due to presence of other mines in the region, social impact assessment for proposed displacement of people, etc.

MAHAGENCO not only submitted false data but also incomplete information. In addition to the information requested as mentioned above, the committee noted the following –

National Commission of Scheduled Tribes (NCST) vide letter dated 4th April, 2018
deferred the Public Hearing subject to compliance/completion of certain studies. Report
of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) health assessment and project of health of
people living in Tamnar Block is yet to competed.
Wild life conservation Plan is yet to be approved from concerned statutory authority.Project involves forest land of 214.869 ha for diversion of non-forestry activity.
Stage-1 FC for the said forest land has not yet granted

EIA Notification on Submission of False Information
The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 details the legal framework related to process of obtaining Environmental Clearance from MoEFCC. Here is what it says about submission of false information,
8. Grant or Rejection of Prior Environmental Clearance (EC):
… (vi) Deliberate concealment and/or submission of false or misleading information or data which is material to screening or scoping or appraisal or decision on the application shall make the application liable for rejection, and cancellation of prior environmental clearance granted on that basis. Rejection of an application or cancellation of a prior environmental clearance already granted, on such ground, shall be decided by the regulatory authority, after giving a personal hearing to the applicant, and following the principles of natural justice. …

EAC Response – Inadequate, Abdication of Responsibility
The EAC is the primary body of experts entrusted with the responsibility of critically appraising and regulating industrial projects that impact the environment. In this case, the committee noted the numerous discrepancies, yet merely directed MAHAGENCO to re-submit required information. The meeting minutes state,
” …The proposal was therefore returned in present form as it is, for completing full details on Form#2 and other observations as given above. ” This author believes that the response of EAC is problematic for several reasons. Some of these have been detailed below.

  1. The committee neither recommended the project for obtaining EC, nor rejected it. As mentioned above, submission of false/misleading data makes the application liable for rejection. Submission of false information in Form#2, mismatching information in the EIA is non-compliance with law even prior to commencement of operations by Mahagenco. For a nodal appraisal/regulatory body to return the proposal without penalizing the defaulters in the least is simply not good enough.
  2. In line with the previous point, it is important to note that Environmental Clearances are accorded on the basis of information submitted by project proponents. Thus, submission of false data in Form #2 and discrepancies in information submitted in the EIA studies is likely to have a cascading effect on all decisions to be taken by relevant authorities related to the project. A Supreme Court judgement related to Mopa airport in Goa (CA No. 12251/2018 with CA No. 1053/2019) stresses on this point, among others. A quote from a blog post about the significance of this judgement, “Thus, non-disclosure or wrong disclosures in Form 1 “bypasses the authority of the EAC and SEAC to reject an application at the preliminary stage and cannot be countenanced.”” In this case, Form #2 plays a similar role for according EC. Similarly, a quote from the Mopa judgement shedding light on the problem with EIA discrepancy, “The submission urged by the appellants is that the purpose of the EIA report is to form an assessment of the state of environment as it exists in reality. The project proponent is duty bound to make a proper disclosure and the highest level of transparency is required… Accompanying Form 1 is a declaration of the project proponent that the EC will be liable to be rejected in the event of a suppression or mis-statement of material facts.” The same declaration is part of Form#2 as well.
  3. Authorities such as EAC and MoEFCC not only shoulder regulatory responsibilities, but also bear a moral responsibility toward the people and environment of the country. Returning a proposal ridden with fallacious information without any penalty/action to hold the defaulters responsible is, arguably, not in line with principles of natural justice. Such a decision questions the credibility of the EAC as a body truly concerned about the environment.
  4. It is also a dereliction of duty as there exist other courses of action that could have been taken by a body with as much authority as the EAC. For instance, this author believes that the EAC should have outright rejected the proposal, and MoEFCC could then proceed according to section (8) of EIA Notification 2006 which details course of action to be taken in case of submission of false information (excerpt above).

Alternative Scenarios
While highlighting the numerous issues associated with this EAC decision is important, this author would like to add that there do exist other possible outcomes.

  1. First, the fact remains that MoEFCC has the authority to reject the proposal regardless of what kind of recommendation EAC provides. As mentioned above, neither rejecting nor recommending for EC also still leaves MoEFCC with this option.
  2. With new information being submitted, one can argue that a new public hearing (another mandatory aspect of EC – EIA procedure) should be conducted on the basis of the new information, apart from just re-submitting specified information. People who stand to be directly affected by project operations (residents of Raigarh, in this case) have a chance to express concerns primarily at such public hearings. It is only logical to conduct fresh public hearings if new information related to projects is being submitted. (According to the meeting minutes, “Initially Public Hearing for this project was scheduled on 16th March, 2018, then on 26th May, 2019 and on 26th August, 2019. Public Hearing was finally conducted on 27th September, 2019.” It was postponed on account of protest by local villagers who stand to be affected directly by the mining activities proposed to take place; news reports also suggest that locals allege the public hearing finally conducted was staged).
  3. Even a bare minimum approach to carrying out its duties would have meant the EAC rejected the proposal, or imposed some penalty on the project proponent. This author believes rejection of current proposal would still leave MAHAGENCO with the option of applying again, but with all new information and up to date baselines data, instead of submission of specific components without any penalty.

One Project, Many Potential Impacts
Another thing to note here would be where the coal from Gare Pelma II is proposed to be used. The coal linkage is with specific units of Mahagenco’s Chandrapur, Koradi and Parli Thermal Power Plants. Chandrapur in Maharashtra is a critically polluted area, as identified by CPCB’s Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index. Koradi Thermal Power Plant is located near Nagpur and Koradi towns, as is Khaparkheda TPS, also owned by Mahagenco. The area is notorious for air and water pollution from thermal plants and industry, and Koradi has even been identified as a Sulfur Dioxide hotspot in the last year. The impacts of burning of coal mined from this part of Chhattisgarh are not limited to the mining lease area, they potentially extend to those areas where the use of coal will exacerbate prevailing pollution problems as well.
Lastly, a report authored by a committee constituted under an NGT order passed in the Shivpal Bhagat vs. Union of India & Others case (OA 104/2018) dated 11th October 2019 highlights one significant point, among others. The report highlights, “Based on evidence summarised above, the committee is of the opinion that the Tamnar-Gharghoda block region is close to exceeding its environmental carrying capacity.” The Gare Pelma coal mines are spread across Tamnar and Gharghoda blocks in Raigarh district. This is an environmentally stressed region being proposed to be opened up for further mining, for coal to be used in existing severely polluted areas of Maharashtra.

*Note: According to OM issued by MoEFCC on 20th April 2018, industries are to submit Form #2 in format given and in line with other provisions of EIA Notification.

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: