Govt eases norms for thermal power plants, allows coal to be sourced, moved without fresh approvals
The Union environment ministry has relaxed norms for the coal mining sector and thermal power stations, allowing thermal plants to change their source of coal irrespective of its ash content or mode of transport from the source.
This means that coal will be allowed to be transported by trucks covered with tarpaulin sheets, even if the source of the raw material is located a long distance away.
The change was made in an office memorandum issued by the ministry on November 11, and comes after demands by thermal power plants, who said that the constraints were leading to delays in obtaining coal from new domestic sources.
“All the thermal power plants having environmental clearance can change the coal source (from imported to domestic, domestic to domestic and domestic to imported) including lignite through e-auctions, short-term linkage, long-term linkage other linkage options of the ministry of coal or any organisation recognised for allotting coal linkages without seeking the amendment in environmental clearance...,” the order, reviewed by HT, states.
Environment activists, however, said the move could lead to a spike in pollution because there will be no oversight of how changing the source of coal would impact the environment.
Under the environment impact assessment notification 2006, any change in the sourcing of coal required thermal power plants to seek an amendment in the environmental clearance (EC) granted to them. This would mean that environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee would reassess the project based on the new source. This was to ensure that the transportation and use of coal was monitored in order to ensure emissions is low. Every EC usually stipulates transport mode, which was rail/conveyor belt.
The new rules state that no amendment will be required in the EC granted to the plant, even if the source of coal, and consequently, its distance from the thermal power plant changes. Details regarding the location of the coal source; quantity; quality which includes (ash, sulphur, moisture content and calorific value); distance and mode of transportation, will only have to be informed to the environment ministry and its regional office.
About transportation, the office memorandum advises thermal power plants that, as far as possible, transportation should be done by rail or conveyor belt or other environment friendly modes. But road transportation of coal will be allowed in tarpaulin covered trucks, till railway or conveyor belt infrastructure is made available. There is no deadline about when this infra will be ready.
“The EC is granted based on a specific source of coal and distance from the mine. Any change in source required an amendment in EC as conditions for appraisal change. Now we have done away with the need for that amendment,” said a senior environment ministry official.
“We had asked the ministry a couple of times about the need to simplify these norms. This is for a simple reason. Mines keep changing. Every time there is a change in the mine location, there is unnecessary delay in amending the EC,” said Ashok Khurana, director general of the Association of Power Producers.
Experts have warned that this could lead to air pollution, damage of roads in many areas through which coal will be transported and it weakens the environment appraisal process for thermal power plants.
“The flexibility to change the source or coal or indefinitely using road transportation even as mandatory rail lines or conveyor belts are being put into place can be seen as part of the pool of exemptions and incentives being given to the mining projects. In effect, the ministry has replaced rule of law with flexibility of law that is to only suit the requirement of mining and coal power projects,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research. “This no holds barred approach has serious implications for places and people where these decisions will be operationalised. Coal transportation will be carried out on public roads or village roads, none of which was in the original plans,” she said.
“The ash content requirements for sourcing of coal were watered down earlier. So we are not being vigilant about the quality of coal. If coal is dirty and emission control equipment is not installed as per norms, then emissions will be high,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment