Mines near rivers polluting water, affecting flow, in Chhattisgarh
Sometime in the afternoon on September 29, the Lilagar river, usually a calm tributary of the Mahanadi but at the time in spate for days following heavy monsoon rains, changed course and broke through an embankment to flood a Coal India mine in Chhattisgarh’s Dipka. It inundated open pits, submerging heavy machinery, and knocking out operations that will take at least a month to normalise.
Started in 1976 and run by Coal India subsidiary Southern Eastern Coal Fields (SECL), the Dipka mine contributes around 5% of Coal India’s output. Questions are now being raised about how the mine was allowed to expand close to a river, and has renewed concerns over several similar projects in the state, the chief among which are Kusmunda, Parsa, and the yet-to-be-operationalised Gare Palma II.
“The instances where floodplains or rivers have been impacted because of these are obvious because we have assessed their environment clearance documents. But in Chhattisgarh there are many such cases where mining has destroyed the river catchment completely or has devastated floodplains,” said Alok Shukla, convener of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.
Coal mines have a heavy water demand, using millions of litres each day to wash off impurities – the effluents are invariably diverted back downstream. “The destruction of river catchment and floodplains is dangerous. We are already seeing heavy pollution and siltation. There will be more disasters in future,” Shukla added.
Experts warn that the projects also pose a risk to groundwater quality.
CLOSER TO DANGER
According to activists, the operational projects have the requisite clearances from the Union environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC), which assesses the impact on the region’s ecology. In the case of projects such as Dipka, EAC has also approved several expansions – the latest of which was given in February 2018, allowing mining to be increased from 31 to 35 million tonne per annum.
During one of the previous approvals for expansion, EAC wrote: “River Ahiran flows at a distance of 8km from the mine…there are a number of rivers and nallahs such as Lilagar nadi, Kholar nala and channels flowing within and in the vicinity of the mining lease area... Mining shall be carried out at a safe distance from the surface water bodies flowing in and near the mining lease area.”
In the latest approval issued on February 20, 2018, EAC reiterated the need for mining to be done at a safe distance from water bodies.
Officials from Coal India and SECL did not respond to requests for a comment. A senior Coal India official, asking not to be named, said the Dipka mine operations were at a safe distance. “The monsoon rains were extremely heavy this year. The mine is located at a distance as per the mining statute. The embankments are also very high and have been constructed as per rules,” this person said.
A senior environment ministry official said the government is looking at all coal mines that are close to rivers due to pollution concerns. “We have drawn up a list of such mines and given it to ministry of coal. A decision will be taken on whether they can operate. This discussion has been going on for some time now,” said CK Mishra, secretary, ministry of environment.
WATER BODIES WITHIN
In some of the other mines such as Gare Palma II (yet to receive all clearances) and Kusmunda, rivers or water bodies fall within the mining areas, according to preliminary and final environmental assessments.
In Gare Palma II’s case, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report – one of the preliminary stages before EAC approval – states: “Hydrology study of the Kelo River (which passes through the project) was done within watershed area of the project site. It includes catchment area of the river within watershed, run-off estimation, occurrence of flood during heavy rainfall.” But it also adds that “no catastrophic events due to floods have occurred in the project area. The project area does not fall under very heavy rainfall area”.
Adani Enterprises, which operates the mine, did not respond to HT’s requests for a comment on whether the mine is deemed vulnerable to a Dipka-like incident.
Coal India’s Kusmunda opencast mine flows adjacent to a Hasdeo tributary. “I don’t think a similar disaster will happen. [But] one cannot make predictions. This year rainfall was unprecedented,” said the senior Coal India official quoted above.
‘MINING RISKS UNDERESTIMATED’
Experts suggest mining could have been a factor in the Lilagar river changing course. “The course of a river can be affected by mining activities. It needs to be checked if the river (Lilagar) changed course because of mining,” said Shashank Shekhar, assistant professor, department of geology, Delhi University.
“Any river flowing through or near a mining waste dump is likely to carry a lot of pollution. Indian coal is high in sulphur. Fly ash contains a number of heavy metals. Animals or humans who are using the river water for drinking or bathing will have health impacts,” Shekhar added, calling for an assessment of how much pollution is caused by mining. “The onus of restoration should be only on the mining company. Polluter pays principle should apply,” he said.
Activists say the Dipka incident only spotlights a part of a problem that has existed for long. “The Lilagar river is extremely polluted... There are two coal washeries and a power plant which also discharge waste into the river. There is hardly any river bed. It’s covered in coal. Such heavy pollution from mines in rivers is common here,” said Bipasha Paul of Raipur-based Jan Abhivyakti.
“In case of the Parsa mine, it’s located in the Hasdeo drainage area and a tributary Stem flows through it. There have been complaints to the pollution control board regarding severe pollution but no action,” Paul added.
CLIMATE CHANGE THREAT
Between September 26 and October 2, Korba -- the town closest to Dipka -- received 264.8 mm rainfall compared to normal of 18.6 mm, 1324% higher than normal.
With the Dipka incident partly being blamed on heavy rain, experts said such threats cannot be ruled out in the future. According to India Meteorological Department (IMD), climate change could increase frequency of such rain patterns. “Our data shows extreme rain events are increasing so are dry or light rainfall days. With rise in global mean temperature, the moisture holding capacity of the atmosphere increases so there is intense rain during some spells,” DS Pai, head, climate research services at IMD Pune, said in previous remarks to HT.
Pai and other IMD scientists flagged this trend in a 2015 study that shows central India has been recording an increasing trend in heavy and very heavy rainfall events.
Against the backdrop of such risks, the government’s plans to allow easier approvals for development projects, such as mining, has been flagged by activists.
In a draft of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2019, circulated for “internal discussion,” expansion of development projects with a production capacity increase of up to 25% has been exempted from EIA. HT has seen a copy of the draft.
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