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When lungs are as black as coal

Gurvinder Singh | Updated on June 01, 2021

Choked: The Kolaghat thermal power plant was supposed to install technologies to eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions by December 2021, but not a single contract has been awarded till date   -  BUSINESS LINE / PARTH SANYAL

Dirty coal is leaving West Bengal gasping for breath

* The ash pond has polluted everything and made the people living close to it severely ill

* A 2007 study had found instances of severe health complications among people living in a 10-km radius from the three thermal power plants at Kolaghat (East Midnapore), Bandel (Hooghly district) and Bakreshwar (Birbhum district)

* 46 units at 13 power plants in West Bengal, with cumulative 13,386 MW capacity, were supposed to install flue gas desulfurisation (FGD) technologies to eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions by 2022

***

The country is in the grip of a deathly virus that is leaving many struggling to take their next breath. But breathlessness is an old foe in many parts of West Bengal. And the cause is an even older problem — that of dirty coal.

Nilima Samui (55), a flower seller, has been struggling with breathing problems for several years.

Samui blames the fly ash pond near her village Barbahala, in West Bengal’s East Midnapore district, for her poor health. “The dust has made my life miserable. I have to consume a tablet every day before going out to collect flowers, which grow close to the fly ash pond. I have been suffering from breathlessness and a skin disease for the past 15 years,” says Samui, who does not know if her condition has been identified.

“There is hardly enough money for treatment except visiting a primary health centre, which doesn’t have much facilities. The ash pond has polluted everything and made the people living close to it severely ill,” she says.

Shallow breath: Nilima Samui, a 55-year-old flower seller, has been struggling with breathlessness and a skin disease for several years   -  GURVINDER SINGH

 

Such complaints abound among the over 1.5 lakh villagers living near the Kolaghat thermal power plant in Purba Medinipur (East Midnapore), barely 50km from Kolkata. “The ash flies in the air and enters our houses. We have been suffering from severe skin diseases and cough,” says Sishir Kumar Dey (45), who sells lottery tickets outside the main gate of the power plant.

A 2007 study had found instances of severe health complications among people living in a 10-km radius from the three thermal power plants at Kolaghat (Purba Medinipur), Bandel (Hooghly district) and Bakreshwar (Birbhum district). “We found recurrent dry and wet cough, wheezing, breathlessness on exertion and chest discomfort as major lower respiratory symptoms (LRS). We had also detected asthma, recurrent headaches, eye and skin irritations,” Dr Manas Ranjan Ray, former head of the department of experimental haematology at Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI), Kolkata, had observed in the study, titled Social Cost of Air Pollution from Thermal Power stations in Bengal.

The study found poor lung function in workers and local people. “The impacts are both long- and short-term. Even hypertension was detected among the people living in the areas surrounding the thermal power plants,” the study said.

The magnitude of the danger is worsened by the fact that West Bengal has been “feeding the dirtiest coal” to its thermal plants, as claimed by the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in a recent study.

According to the study, most stations supplying electricity to West Bengal had not taken measures to comply with the government’s December 2015 sulphur dioxide norms (needed for lower emission rates) and hence were using what has been described as dirty coal.

Titled Meeting Emission Norms, the study said in West Bengal, 84 per cent of power stations supplying power to the state was unclean.

Coal-fired power stations emit three major pollutants — particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, and sulphur dioxide. The non-profit looked at only sulphur dioxide emissions, as most power plants meet the standards for particulate matter and the norms for oxides of nitrogen have already been watered down.

“The states were benchmarked on the extent of their procurement of cleaner power. We found that most of the stations supplying electricity to West Bengal have not taken any measures to comply with the December 2015 sulphur dioxide norms notified by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Now even the ministry has relaxed the norms, which is quite dangerous for the environment and also the people living near the plant. Sulphur dioxide gas is more harmful because it can get into lungs and cause severe health complications,” said Nivit Kumar Yadav, programme director, Industrial Pollution, CSE.

The colourless gas affects the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes, Yadav adds. “Inflammation of the respiratory tract causes coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis, and makes people more prone to infections of the respiratory tract.”

When contacted, senior officials of WBPDCL said they had no knowledge of the report. “We do not have information about any such report being published by CSE,” said Amalesh Kumar, director (mining).

The government’s efforts to retrofit power plant equipment to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions are reportedly moving at snail’s pace. Sunil Dahiya, a Delhi-based analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), says 46 units at 13 power plants in West Bengal, with cumulative 13,386 MW capacity, were supposed to install flue gas desulfurisation (FGD) technologies to eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions by 2022.

Bids were awarded (from September 2019 to October 2020) for units with a cumulative capacity of 5,300 MW, he says, but they are unlikely to meet the deadline. “It takes at least two to three years for the installation. The adverse effect of dirty coal could have been mitigated had the power plants shown keen interest in installing the FGD,” Dahiya says.

Toxic pond: The Kolaghat fly ash pond has led to severe health complications among people living in its radius   -  GURVINDER SINGH

 

Pointing to the Kolaghat thermal power plant (1,260 MW), he says it was supposed to install FGD at four units by December 2021 and at the remaining two by December 2022. But not a single contract has been awarded till date, he adds.

Clean air seems a distant dream for Samui. To make a living, she continues to pluck flowers from near the pond, and gasps for breath.

Gurvinder Singh is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata

Published on June 01, 2021

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