Ash dyke breach in Singrauli- A recurring affront to public health

Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air

Singrauli region is  known as the energy capital of the country. The  region includes two adjoining districts of Singrauli (Madhya Pradesh) and Sonbhadra (Uttar Pradesh). It  hosts nine coal based power plants for electricity generation and two captive power plants with a total capacity of ~23,000 MW. It is also home to a significant number of coal mines owned by NCL (Northern Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited) and private operators.

Singrauli region is identified as one of the critically polluted regions in India. While the heavy pollution levels in air, water and land are a big issue in the region, one particular problem which seems to be getting severe during past year has been the breaking of ash dykes at the power plants and contamination of land and water bodies.

The Recent ash dyke breach at Reliance power owned coal based Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) on 10th April 2020 is not a standalone incident, it is a recurring phenomenon over the years and it seems that the frequency of the events are increasing with time. This is the third such incident which took place in the region since August 2019.

The sequence of three spills have been looked at using satellite images and with some certainty it can be said that the ash spills pose a major risk not only to land, life and property. There is significant ash mixing into the rivers and Rihand reservoir making the issue much more than what we see in general discourse around similar cases.

Satellite Images before and after the spill at three power plants in Singrauli between August 209 to April 2020

Essar Energy owned Mahan power plant (1200 MW)

Image credit: Planet Labs, Click here for high resolution time-lapse images on Planet Labs

NTPC Vindhyachal Super Thermal Power Plant (4760 MW)

Image credit: Planet Labs, Click here for high resolution time-lapse images on Planet Labs

Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (3960 MW)

Image credit: Planet Labs, Click here for high resolution time-lapse images on Planet Labs

The NTPC and Sasan breaches didn’t just result in damage and spillage of the ash in residential and agricultural land but also contaminated the streams nearby and ultimately leading to the ash spillage reaching and contaminating the Rihand Reservoir. The contamination of Rihand Reservoir, which is the biggest source of water for all human and ecosystem needs in the region is a serious problem. The health hazards and ecosystem damage of such spills into water bodies needs detailed assessment and proper cleanup measures should be undertaken to reduce the caused damage.

In an earlier study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2012, CSE tested blood and hair samples in people living in Sonbhadra district, they found that 84% of the tested blood samples and 58% of the tested hair samples had very high levels of mercury. The study also reported that

  • Mercury has contaminated groundwater in Sonbhadra. The highest concentration of mercury was found in the hand pump water sample of Dibulganj– 0.026 ppm. This is 26 times the standard of 0.001 ppm set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
  • Gobind Ballabh Pant Sagar ‘Rihand’ Reservoir is also contaminated with mercury. The level found in the reservoir, where the caustic soda manufacturing unit of Aditya Birla Chemicals Limited releases its effluent (Dongiyanallah), was 0.01 ppm.
  • The fish in the area were found to be contaminated by methylmercury. Fish from near Dongiyan allah had 0.447 ppm of methyl mercury, which is almost twice the standard set by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Source: Manju Menon, “The criminality of fly ash management“, Gaon Connection, 15th April 2020

The study along with other such studies around forest rights violation and pollution {Singrauli is one of the most polluted regions in the country under Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) framework by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)} etc. in the region were a grim reminder that the dirty fuel (coal) had become a curse for the people of the region.

Most of the recommendations of research institutes, civil society organisations, court/tribunal appointed committees and other regulations and orders remained on paper with very little or no implementation of actual required measures on ground, leading to the situation getting even more severe and reaching a point where we are today.

MoEF&CC (Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change) came-up with Fly Ash (Utilisation) Notification under the Environment (Protection) Act in 1999 which envisioned 100% utilisation of fly ash within nine years from the date of issue of the notification. It has been more than 20 years since and the utilization of ash by power plants still remains an unaddressed issue. The timelines have been extended multiple times since then along with relaxation in usage of fly ash for multiple purposes.

Central Electricity Authority (CEA) reported fly ash utilization for financial year 2018-19 at the three power plants mentioned is as follows-

Coal ash contains heavy metals such as (lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr) and antimony (Sb)) in trace amounts. Upon human exposure these heavy metals damage almost every organ and associated organ systems, notably kidneys, heart, the central nervous system and blood circulation in humans. Exposure to these elements has also been correlated to decreased verbal competence,increased frustration, severe depression, academic failure, hallucination, retardation of infant growth and premature delivery.

With these increasing incidences, such high presence and spillage/disposal of coal ash into the land, air and water environment and ultimately finding its way into the human body through skin contact, respiratory tracts and food chain, people of Singrauli are exposed to all sorts of health hazards mentioned above and many more.

More ironic is the fact that the government is still granting permissions for new coal based power capacity to be added in the region. Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) recommended environment clearance for setting up of two additional units of 800 MW each (1600 MW) at NTPC Singrauli Super Thermal Power plant in February 2020.

The only way to secure a healthy environment in the region is to

  • Take strict actions on non compliance of regulations and ignorances leading to such incidences i.e., leading to appropriate compensation to all directly and indirectly affected people.
  • Comprehensive assessment of all ask dykes in the region/country and coming up with comprehensive guidelines on proper construction and management. 
  • Efficient pollution control and strict implementation of norms/regulation from the operating power plants, industries and mines in the region.
  • Reduce the burden on the region by stopping all new capacity addition for coal mining and power generation projects in the region.
  • Aggressive investments in the region to ensure restoration of livelihood options for locals, i.e., entitlement to community/individual forest rights; agriculture and livestock rearing and generation of jobs in clean/decentralised renewable energy generation sector