Environment ministry eases norms for industry expansion
The environment ministry has allowed companies operating in several industries, including some polluting ones, to expand capacities on the basis of a self-certification that this will not “increase the pollution load”, creating the room for potential misdeclaration (and misuse), especially in light of a traditionally poor monitoring regime.
Earlier this week, the ministry released a user manual for online submission of an undertaking on no increase in pollution load due to expansion, on its Parivesh website.
This follows a notification issued by the ministry on March 2 which states that the Centre deems it necessary to permit increase in production capacity of processing, production and manufacturing sector with or without any change in raw material-mix or product-mix or any change in configuration of the plant without the requirement of prior environmental clearance provided that there is no increase in pollution load.
The March 2 notification is applicable to industries such as coal washing, mineral processing, pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic chemicals such as paint, cement , petrochemicals, and sugar, some of which do have a significant environmental footprint.
The motivation behind the notification isn’t clear.
However, the notification itself claimed the environment ministry has received several requests from processing, production and the manufacturing sector for permitting increase in production capacity without having to go through the entire environmental clearance process again. Independent experts said this could mean benefitting most polluting industries who may already have a very large pollution footprint.
The Centre amended the EIA (environmental impact assessment) notification 2006 on November 23, 2016 and January 16, 2020 providing flexibility. The 2016 and 2020 amendments introduced the principles of “no increase in pollution load” and exemption from seeking environment clearance if resultant increase of production capacity was less than 50%. This applied to a change in product mix, change in quantities within products, or number of products within the same category of industry. The March 2021 notification takes this further and allows any amount of expansion.
The manual on the Parivesh website provides a questionnaire and provisions for uploading documents on expansion and an undertaking that the expansion will not lead to increase in pollution load. Industries will also have to upload a “no increase in pollution load certificate” from an environmental auditor or institutions empanelled by the State Pollution Control Board or Central Pollution Control Board or Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
If on verification, the CPCB or SPCB , after giving the project proponent the opportunity of being heard, holds that such expansion or modernisation results in increase in pollution load, the exemption claimed under the clause shall become invalid. Also, such an exemption will be applicable if the industry installs Online Continuous Monitoring System (OCMS) with at least 95% uptime, connected to the servers of the CPCB or SPCBs.
“The ease of “no increase in pollution load” was introduced to the environment clearance process from 2016, to gradually exempt project expansions from the purview of carrying out impact assessments or public hearings. Until now, this exemption was applicable up to 50% expansion. The new amendment has ensured that expansion of some of the most polluting industrial operations, i.e.chemical fertilizers, coal washing, mineral processing, petroleum refining, asbestos and cement production, can be carried provided a “no increase in pollution load certificate” can be produced by the project authorities,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.
“Prior to these exemptions, the environmental performance and legal compliance with environmental safeguards had direct consequences for whether expansions could be allowed. These units would also require a public hearing. All these would allow affected people to weigh in legitimacy of the expansion and allow the environment ministry to assess the such legacy impacts, existing illegalities and conduct of project proponents. None of this will be required for all the projects operations granted exemptions through this amendment irrespective of its capacity,” she added.
“The notification will cover certain industries covered in the schedule to the EIA notification 2006. The process is very clear. The industries can self-certify through their consultants but if they are found erring by the pollution control boards their environmental clearance will be invalid,” a senior environment ministry official said on condition of anonymity.