Mumbai: The latest government attempt to ensure the safe and sustainable disposal of fly ash--a toxic residue left over from burning coal--could end up damaging India's farmlands, water bodies and fragile habitats, say researchers and activists. Fly ash is known to cause air and water pollution.

Coal and lignite-based thermal power plants should "ensure 100% utilisation of ash generated by it in an eco-friendly manner", said an April 22, 2021 notification of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

Over the last two decades, the Indian government has been issuing similar notifications on the disposal and utilisation of fly ash. Its recommendations have varied: use it to manufacture building material and in construction work; apply it as soil conditioner in farms and use it to reclaim low-lying areas and empty mines. However, over 50% of industries remain non-compliant, mostly dumping the ash in the open, in water bodies and in unlined and uncovered pits.

There have been eight major incidents involving coal ash in India between August 2019 and May 2021, as per a status report by Fly Ash Watch Group, a collective of activist individuals and organisations across India. The Singrauli region spread across Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh accounted for half of these.

In 2019-20, 197 thermal plants in India generated 226 million tonnes of fly ash. And nearly 1.6 billion tonnes of it are scattered over 65,000 acres of land, as of 2019.

Accidents happen mostly when fly ash overflows or breaks through the embankment of ash ponds where it has been dumped. An ash pond is designed with an embankment all around and an internal and external drainage system. It needs to be constantly monitored for safety and spillage.

Environmentalists have been urging the government to delete "filling of low lying area" as an accepted use of fly ash. "There are no clear guidelines on what constitutes a 'low-lying area'," said Rahul Choudhary, Supreme Court advocate and founding member of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE). Even riverine stretches and wetlands can be considered low-lying, he pointed out.

Little action has been taken against erring units, as we detail later. We reached out to the MoEFCC for comments on fly ash mismanagement. This article will be updated as and when we receive a response.

Coal-based power plants are among the most polluting industries in India, significantly responsible for its dire air pollution levels, studies have shown. Coal-based thermal power plants are water intensive, using more water than permitted, IndiaSpend has reported in September 2019.

Rules diluted over the years

Over 76 fly ash accidents have been reported in mainstream English media in the last decade, killing people and extensively damaging water sources, air and soil, said a joint 2020 study by the Healthy Energy Initiative and Community Environmental Monitoring, a clean energy advocacy. Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have the highest number of coal-based thermal power plants and report the most fly ash accidents, according to the study.

Fly ash spillage is hard to fix and polluters and authorities have shown no interest in cleaning up, observed experts. "Once water is contaminated there is no undoing [the contamination], but even for the visible spots of ash spillage there is no clean-up undertaken by plant authorities," said Shripad Dharmadhikary, analyst at the research organisation Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, who also co-authored the Fly Ash Watch report. "The eight major incidents [August 2019 - May 2021] don't take into account the ash spill that happens routinely."

The government has been attempting to tackle the problem since 1999.

The first official notification on the subject came in 1999 and it outlined some methods for the constructive use of fly ash--to manufacture cement, concrete blocks and bricks and in the construction of roads and embankments within a 100-km radius of thermal power plants.

However, subsequent notifications--in 2003, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2019, 2020 and the latest, in 2021--diluted the definition of and deadline for ash utilisation by polluters. They allowed the reclamation of low-lying areas and abandoned mines using ash, extended deadlines for polluters, raised the distance over which fly ash can be transported and did away with the ash content cap in coal.

In 2019-20, the power sector consumed 678 million tons of coal and generated 226 million tonnes of ash. Of this, only 187 million tonnes (82%) was put to use in various ways. The remaining waste piled up, damaging the environment.

The Centre for Science and Environment analysed state wise-data on ash generation and utilisation between 2010 and 2019 and found Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh had accumulated the most ash during this period. And Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha have huge ash backlogs. In order to minimise this pollution, urgent measures are needed, said experts.

On the draft notification, the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra commented that it "appears to prioritise full disposal of fly ash without adequate considerations of the safety of health and environment". The think-tank Centre for Policy Research also noted the need to take into account "non-compliance induced breaches of ash dykes and ponds and present preventive and restitutive measures for the same". Apart from legal issues, it pointed to "serious impacts such as contamination of farmlands, common use areas, water bodies and air, for years".

Periodic disasters, no action

"In the last two decades since the notification was first introduced, the problem of fly ash has escalated. The subsequent notifications have allowed violations which have led to fly ash breach accidents and the regulatory authorities are clueless on how to handle it," said Shweta Narayan, an environmental justice activist and campaigner for climate and health with Health Care Without Harm in India.

In June 2021, a fly ash breach accident was reported in Chattisgarh's Korba thermal power plant, said Savita Rath, a local activist and lawyer. "Only three plants--Jindal's Raigarh power plant, Korba West plant and DB power plant--have ponds to dispose of ash. So many other plants in Chhattisgarh don't have any mechanism in place. And, even in these ponds, ash is piled up like small hills. Is there no limit to how much one can accumulate in the ponds?"

Earlier, in April 2020, the wall of the Reliance Thermal Plant's ash pond in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh collapsed claiming at least two lives, destroying agricultural land and contaminating groundwater. The Singrauli region houses 10 thermal power plants. It is a preferred industrial location because it offers easy access to coal and water from the nearby Rihand reservoir. In the last two years alone, four of the eight major ash pond breach incidents took place in the region.

Note: *This is different from one-time breaches at other power plants; a
continuous overflow of ash slurry from the plant's ash pond directly into
Rihand reservoir has been reported over many years.

"Around six months before the collapse of the [ash pond] wall, local villagers and gram panchayat members had protested and warned that the wall of the pond could collapse anytime," said Sandeep Sahu, a local activist, on the Reliance Plant accident. "This was [the result of] long-term negligence." The district collector's office had also warned plant officials about the precariousness of the ash dyke but no action was taken, said a Newsclick report.

Truant units undeterred by strictures

Since 2013, Supreme Court advocate and environmentalist Ashwani Kumar Dubey has filed several petitions in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on fly ash disposal in the Rihand reservoir. All the thermal plants in the region are located on the banks of the reservoir, he told IndiaSpend. "The reservoir is the only source of drinking water for the people of Singrauli and Sonbhadra districts and the entire water body has been contaminated, making it unfit for consumption," Dubey said. In several cases, the NGT has reprimanded plant authorities but that does not appear to work as a deterrent.

The North Chennai Thermal Power Plant is a case in point. The litigation on ash slurry leaks has been going on for years. In 2017, the NGT had warned the plant of total closure if it failed to contain the discharge. In January 2020, the tribunal even imposed a penalty of Rs 8.34 crore. Despite this, the pollution continues.

Fly ash transportation is also hazardous. India exports large quantities of fly ash to Bangladesh, where it is used to make cement and it is transported through the Sundarbans by barges. Five incidents of capsizing of such barges occurred in 2020, according to the reply to a Right-to-Information request filed by the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra.

"Containing the spread of pollutants is more difficult in the water and when combined with heavy rains or cyclones, it is dispersed to a longer and wider stretch of the water bodies," Avli Verma, an analyst at the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, told IndiaSpend. There are no studies in the public domain to assess the damage caused by fly ash to water bodies in various accidents.

We reached out to the Inland Waterways Authority of India on whether any damage assessment is undertaken when fly ash barrages capsize. We will update when we receive a response.

Deemed non-hazardous waste

In 2000, the ministry reclassified fly ash as solid waste from "hazardous industrial waste", and put it in the same category as household waste. As solid waste, fly ash is subject to different and far less stringent regulations on how it should be handled unlike hazardous waste, said Narayan of Health Care Without Harm.

Since 2009, the Expert Appraisal Committee--which assesses the environmental impact of a project for the MoEFCC--has been directing plant authorities to not dispose of ash in low-lying areas in their environment clearance conditions (see here, here and here). However, the 2019 office memorandum by the ministry deleted this condition with retrospective effect.

In the case of Neyveli Uttar Pradesh Power Ltd Plant in Ghatampur, Kanpur Nagar, the environment clearance directed the plant authorities to put in place mechanisms for the continuous monitoring of radioactivity and heavy metals in fly ash.

"None of the orders have been complied [with]. The state agencies are also in denial mode," said SC advocate Dubey. He approached the Supreme Court on non-compliance in the Rihand reservoir case, but the matter is pending because of the ongoing pandemic.

The NGT has been imposing penalties on erring plants in several cases but it does not factor in the ongoing contamination and the damage this causes to the lives and livelihoods of those living in the vicinity and to its long-term ecological impact, Choudhary said.

Fears over increased coal production

Over the years, with an increase in power generation, India has been seeing an increase in coal ash generation. As the amount of fly ash increased, the environment ministry brought in, as we said, several notifications and amendments to the notifications aiming to achieve 100% utilisation of fly ash within a specified deadline.

"Utilisation targets are difficult to achieve," said Dharmadhikary of the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. Legacy ash--unused over years--and the freshly generated ash piles up in ash ponds or open fields. Without adequate legal action against violators and weak compliance, breaches will continue undeterred, said activists.

With the opening up of the coal sector for commercial mining by private players in 2018, and with reduced oversight, there will be further increase in ash generation, it is feared.

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