Coal Plant Accident Kills Six in India

What is electric power worth? The coal power industry is responsible for an incredible amount of suffering and death via air, soil, water pollution and land destruction. This is not to mention the gathering climate crisis apocalypse. This piece discusses the cost of coal.

This post is cross-posted from the DGR News Service.

Amidst the increasing number of Covid-19 cases in India and talks from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on reopening selective industries, an accident in a coal-fired power plant washed away six people (three children, two men, and one woman), in Singrauli district in India . Three of them have been found dead, while three are still missing and presumed to be dead.

The flood was caused by the failure of a dam holding back “fly ash” sludge at the power plant owned by Reliance Power. Bodies were found as far as five kilometers (more than 3 miles) from the site of accident.

What Is Fly Ash?

Fly ash, along with bottom ash and “scrubber sludge”, is a by-product of burning pulverised coal. Coal ash consists of heavy metals (like arsenic, boron, lead, mercury) that are known to be carcinogenic and cause liver and kidney diseases. Mercury levels in blood samples near the Singrauli region were found to be six times greater than what is considered safe.

We know that fly ash is a global problem. Much of the fly ash produced from coal power stations is disposed of (stored) in landfills or ponds. Ash that is stored or deposited outdoors can eventually leach the toxic compounds into underground water aquifers. Once water is contaminated it affects the health of the water courses and wildlife.

Fly Ash Accidents

Given the hazardous nature of coal ash, it is usually mixed with water to keep it from blowing away and stored in an artificially created pond. Accidents occur when a breach in the dam causes the fly ash pond water to leak. Such accidents are not uncommon. This is the third incident of the type in Singrauli district (which hosts over a dozen such pond dykes) in the past 8 months: one happened in Essar Power Plant on August, and the other in NTPC plant on October.

Accidents like these comes at a substantive cost for the farmers’ sustenance as well. Essar accident caused major crop and house damage in nearby villages. NTPC incident washed away crops and cattle. The fly ash from the current accident has swallowed up entire fields in its path.

Fly ash accidents can also completely wipe out natural biodiversity in rivers and streams, killing fish, crayfish.

The Reliance Power accident.

In this particular case, speculations have been raised that the accident was caused by a heavy accumulation of fly ash in the pond. Due to the economic lockdown (as a result of the coronavirus), the waste materials could not be disposed. However, official reports reveal that the project responsible for the fly ash pond were sent repeated warnings for upgrade by the state government. A 2014 investigation reported a saturation of thermal power plants in the entire area and warned of potential damage.

Although India has delineated plans for scientific disposal and 100% utilization of fly ash since 1999, it has not yet been successful. Slurries have previously been dumped directly into water bodies used as sources of drinking water by locals. Local people have been fighting for resettlement rights of the people displaced by the thermal power project, and against the associated environmental pollution. In this case, suspicion has been raised regarding a planned sabotage in order to let the toxic waste run into the local water bodies.

The local authorities have declared that “strictest possible action” will be taken. Most likely, a minor fine will be given to the company. Meanwhile, Reliance Power has declared that the plant would continue to run normally.

What Are The Problems With Continuing Use of Coal Power Plants?

In this case, there is clear evidence of the company disregarding regulatory policies. Meanwhile, regulatory policies in most countries do not adequately address the risks associated with the storage of coal ash—let alone the existential risks of climate change. For example, in United States the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump Administration loosened regulations on storage and disposal of coal ash in 2018. If put in place, these loosened regulations will increase instances of toxic waste being leaked into local water bodies, harming both human and natural communities.

The 100% utilization policy in India mandates all of coal ash to be used in what is termed “beneficial uses”. One prime example of these include mixing the coal ash with concrete. The associated health risks of living in a house built with coal ash has not been properly studied yet. It is likely that the risks would only be manifested as harmful to health years later, making it difficult for the cause to be determined.

From a biophilic perspective, the existence of coal ash itself is problematic. Coal ash is a byproduct of a coal power plant, and is multiple times more toxic than coal in its natural form, which would in itself provide a strong argument for stopping the creation of coal ash in the first place. However, driven from a growth imperative, coal power plants have become an integral part of the industrial civilization. From such a perspective, the repetitive failures of the storage ponds to contain the toxic material becomes a “necessary evil.” Generally, the health risks associated with toxification are limited to a small group of people, whereas the benefits are enjoyed by a larger group of (often privileged) individuals. In this case, all the major industries in Singrauli district are power plants: the human and natural communities there currently face the dire consequences of a third breach in the past year.

We cannot count on these industries or on the government to regulate themselves. They will have to be shut down by people’s movements.

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