Meena Devi (53) compulsively sweeps her house and terrace once every two hours. It’s a habit she has developed over 25 years, living in the DDA flats that share boundary with the Badarpur Thermal Power Station (BTPS).
“Flyash is a big problem here. You’ll see a layer of grey dust on everything even if you have swept and dusted just a few hours back,” she said.
The story has been the same for thousands of residents in Janta apartments, Molarband and Madanpur Khadar that surround the coal-based power plant. A number of people whom HT interviewed said this had been the best winter for them as the plant was shut in November and opened only this week.
Living with noise
“We can’t talk face-to-face as the noise from the boilers or steam generators overpowers everything. The sound is so loud that one cannot even hear the band playing at weddings in our colony,” said HS Bhati, president of Badarpur Janta Houses Welfare Association.
At any given time when the plant is in operation, the noise (Leq value) from BTPS fluctuates from 71 to 87 decibel, whereas, the permissible standard is 55 decibel during the day time and 45 decibel during the night.
“Sleeping becomes difficult because of the ear splitting noise. This happens whenever they run the turbines. Sometimes it would go on for 3-4 hours. Much has been talked about air pollution that the plant causes, but nobody seems to discuss the issue of noise pollution here,” said DC Dey, a resident of the area.
A living hell for plant workers
Recalling the days he worked at the plant, AS Bisht (73) said, “We would get coupons of Rs 200 or so at the end of each month to buy jaggery from Kendriya Bhandar located within the plant premises.”
As per Ayurveda, jaggery helps to cleanse the respiratory tracts, lungs, food pipe, stomach and intestines. But, doctors say the sweet made out of sugarcane can hardly improve the condition of workers who are directly exposed to over a hundred tonne of flyash and dust on a daily basis.
Flyash are particles that are either smaller or equal to 2.5 micrometers in their aerodynamic diameter (PM2.5). The smaller the particle suspended in the air, the greater the health risks.
“Tuberculosis (TB) was common among workers at Badarpur plant. We treated asthma and bronchitis like one would treat common cold. Many had developed complications in kidneys,” Bisht added.
Fly ash contains significant amounts of silica that can lodge in the lungs and cause silicosis, or scarring of the lung tissue, which can result in a disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease. Chronic exposure can result in fever, shortness of breath, loss of appetite and cyanosis (blue skin). In addition, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that silica causes lung cancer in humans.
Over the years, the plant has become an under performer with three of its five units permanently shut. “Since power generation from this plant has come down, NTPC is keeping only contractual workers for its basic operations. Hundreds of staff quarters inside the plant premises are lying vacant as very few are required to work when it is operational,” said Sohan Singh, a contractor at BTPS.
Problem of flyash
When operational, the 705 MW plant produces a mammoth 3,500 metric tonnes of flyash every month, reports from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) indicate. This means about 117 metric tonnes of flyash, a key component of the hazardous PM 2.5 or fine particulate matter causing air pollution, is released from BTPS on a daily basis.
The plant is spread across 2,160 acres of land within the national capital out of which 1,680 acres is used only to dump flyash which is a by-product of thermal electricity generation.
DPCC reports accessed by HT revealed that as of 2016, the pond near the plant had a staggering 25.7 million metric tonnes of flyash dumped at any given point of time. This is equivalent to having as many as 81 Taj Mahals made out of fly ash.
Murari Lal, a loco pilot with the Indian Railways who has been living near BTPS for 15 years, complained that clothes couldn’t be dried outside as a thin layer of grey dust covers all of it.
“Not just that, most of us suffer bouts of coughing in the morning and black sputum comes out. I feel guilty for letting my children grow up in such an environment. Even relatives stopped visiting us. We just own one house and have no option but to live here,” he said.
According to a report by IIT Kanpur, coal-based power plants operating in Delhi, which as of now is only the Badarpur one, are major contributors to the pollution load in Delhi. Coal-based plants alone have contributed 11% of the capital’s PM 2.5 load.
During summer months, coal and flyash contribute 26% of PM 2.5 and during winter months, secondary particles, including vehicular emissions and power plants, contribute 30% of PM 2.5.
Fly ash also contains toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, chromium including the highly carcinogenic chromium IV, lead, uranium and so on. It increases health risks from inhalation, can trigger immunological reactions, heart diseases and inflammation.
What’s worse is that gaseous pollutants like nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur dioxde (SO2) that are also emitted from the plant were never accounted for in all these years.
“The national norms just did not have any prescribed limit stated for NOx and SO2 emissions whereas, studies as recent as the one by IIT Kanpur have stated that 52% of the Nitrogen Oxide (Nox) load of Delhi is being contributed by the power plants,” Sunita Narain, director, Centre for Science and Environment and member of the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA). It was only in December, 2015 that the Centre notified prescribed norms for the two dangerous pollutants.
Emission reports compiled by the state pollution control body reflect that while the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) which runs the plant has been able to keep particulate emissions within the permissible limit, it has not been able to curb its gaseous emissions.
For example, SO2 emissions which cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling around the chest has frequently been more than double of the permissible standard.
The NTPC, however, said that it is following all the norms prescribed by the government and denied its emissions have crossed the standards. “As directed, we had shut operations of the entire plant owing to pollution. Besides, we have also installed pollution control devices at two units because of which particulate matter emissions have come down,” said Deepna Mehta, NTPC spokesperson.
On the issue of fly ash she said that in the last few years, the total ash utilisation of the plant has been 100%. “The ash is being used in building the Delhi-Agra Highway and for ash-brick manufacturing,” Mehta added.