By Dimuthu Attanayake
Shashikala Harshani is a young mother living in the village of Illanthadiya, Norochcholai, bordering the Coal Power Plant that has been subject to much controversy. When Shashikala’s little girl was born, there was a patch that appeared on her skin, which looked like a kind of rash, on her hand. “We have shown it to doctors and they said it will go away with time. But, it has been five years now. Some doctors say this might be caused due to ash from the power plant, but nobody is sure,” she said.
Noordu Kumari is another resident of the area, who gave birth to a baby with a similar patch on her leg. “It was smaller when she was born but grew bigger with time. The doctors say it will go away,” she repeats.
Young children born with these skin patches have been one concern for the inhabitants of the villages adjoining the Lakvijaya Power Station in Norochcholai. Villagers believe there is a co-relation between these skin conditions and respiratory issues prevalent in the population living around the area and the power plant, even though no causal link has been scientifically established so far by medical experts.
This, however, doesn’t do much to allay the fears of villagers living around the coal power plant, whose three turbines supply 900 megawatts in total to Sri Lanka’s national grid. With an energy crisis looming and the cleaner, cheaper hydro-power capacity no longer sufficient to meet the national demand for power, the Lakvijaya coal power plant in Norochcholai has stepped into fill this gap, in spite of constant breakdowns at the power generation facility.
Residents living around the Norochcholai power plant are convinced that their ailments are somehow linked to the coal power plant, especially since coal and ash particles are constantly floating around the villages. Villagers tell frightening stories of how an expectant mother in the area has been admitted to hospital three times due to different complications so far, and how even this could be linked to the pollution in the area. Concerned residents have also resorted to drinking only bottled water to avoid drinking ground water that they suspect might be contaminated by coal dust.
Unlike in the past, residents make it clear that they have no other issues with the Lakvijaya plant. “If we don’t have to deal with ash or coal dust, we don’t have any other issues with the power plant,” they tell reporters on a visit to the area. But this is a big enough problem.
One of the main grievances related to the power plant has been related to the large amount of ash and coal particles that blew in with the high windy season last year.
Villagers had to protect their eyes and faces from the particles that rode in with the wind. This year, they say the situation is much better, although some particles still reach the villages.
Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, Hemantha Withanage said the main issues with the plant is related to the fly ash and bottom ash produced during the power generation process. Fly ash and bottom ash are by products of the coal combustion process, where fly ash is fine particles that escape combustion chambers with exhaust gases, while bottom ash is a non- combustible residue which collects at the bottom of the broiler.
“On average, the plant produces 2.5 million metric tonnes of bottom ash per year and 1000 metric tonnes of fly ash per day. When the electrostatic precipitator (ESP), which filters the fly ash breaks down, fly ash is released to the atmosphere, through the chimneys,” he said.
Detrimental to health
Withanage explains that bottom ash contains heavy metals, arsenic, nickel, copper and mercury, which are harmful to human health. “To prevent the seeping of these metals to the soil, they should be deposited on a layer of sodium bentonite and covered by a trampoline from the top,” he said. According to him, if mercury mixes with the area’s water table, the water is no longer safe for drinking. Mercury can also be fatal to humans if it accumulates through the digestive tract.
“Therefore, the hair and nails of the people in the area should be tested for the presence of mercury. We are hoping to carry out a study into this. This is actually the duty of the Ceylon Electricity Board( CEB) and the Ministry of Health,” Withanage said.
But energy authorities claim the issue is being addressed.
Speaking to Sunday Observer, Secretary to Ministry of Power and Energy Dr. Suren Batagoda said the likelihood of ash and coal particles being carried with the wind has been 100 per cent reduced now because Lakvijaya workers pour a soluble cement solution on top of ash piles. A chemical is also added to harden the surface on top of the ash pile “When the pile is backoed, this seal breaks but it can be quickly re-made,” he says.
Prevent particles blowing
Dr. Batagoda further says blocks of ash and certain coal piles will be covered with a trampoline to prevent the particles from blowing in the wind towards residential settlements. He also added that the ash was now being sold to a company which had already taken away 50 percent of it. “The rest will be taken away next month,” he pledged.
“There are also plans to make cement blocks with the ash. Therefore, problems related to ash will be minimised and there is no need to build an ash disposal site,” Dr Batagoda added. The CEB would also start construction on the long-awaited wind-barrier soon, Dr Batagoda said, adding that the barrier will be 75 feet high and will prevent the wind from carrying particles to adjacent villages. Speaking of the ESP facility that breaks down, he denied reports of its frequency breakdowns, saying that it only happened once. “Sometimes, ESP is switched off for cleaning purposes, and some fumes are released as a result. That’s all,” he said.
An Environmentalist, who wished to remain anonymous says there can be an adverse impact from the heavy metals which can be washed onto the ground with water, from these piles of ash. “Soil and the water of the area should be assessed. If the soil has heavy metals, the vegetables grown in the area may not be safe.
And these vegetables are consumed in most parts of the country,” he said. He added that about 580 kg of mercury is produced per year in the process of coal power generation, with no system to arrest its entry to the surrounding environment. In other countries, there are mercury and toxic substance elimination standards for coal power plants, he said.
The environmentalist added that globally recognised safe threshold for ash or dust as a particulate matter is 50 micro grams per cubic metre. “According to a study, approximately 80%t of the fly ash particles are less than 10 microns and 35 per cent of the coal particles are less than two millimetres. Even now, this particulate matter can be outside safe limits,” he said. He further said that these small particles are not visible to the eye, yet they can affect human health adversely.
He said that though the CEB was urged to have four air quality meters around the power plant, this had not yet been done. Pouring water or chemicals on top of the ash and coal piles could not stop non-observable particles from escaping.
Environmentalists also explain that there was a toxicology impact from coal and fly ash. The heavy metal concentration in this fly ash, including that of selinium and arsenic is found to be beyond the threshold which can breach the body’s cell walls and attack human organs. Persistent pollution would be hazardous to the health, they warn.
The elderly and the children are more vulnerable and asthma and skin disease among them is a common occurrence of people living in close proximity to power plants.
According to an article published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, USA by Yang et al, infants born to mothers living 20 to 30 miles downwind from the Pennsylvania power plant were 6.5 %t more likely to be born with a low birth weight and 17.12 % more likely to be born with a very low birth weight.
Withanage said the Mae Moh power plant in Thailand had similar issues with ash, which led to 600 deaths in the 2007/2008, mainly due to asthma.
Director General of Health Services, Dr. Anil Jasinghe told the Sunday Observer that he would request the regional Director of Health Services and Epidemiologist to study the situation in the area. He further observed that people should not be living within such close proximity to the power plant.
However, the farmers are proud of their cultivation lands, most of which have been in the families for about three generations. For most of them, land is their livelihood and an important part of their existence. “We have enough water here, and most vegetables other than carrot, beans and leeks grow in this soil. When the rest of the country floods, we provide them with vegetables,” they said.
Farmers in Paniadiya are exposed to the particles from piles of coal that is stacked bordering their farms. They claim these particles make it increasingly difficult to grow crops such as chillies, ladies fingers, melon, pumpkin and other crops that have their harvest above the earth. “There has been a reduction of the harvest and leaves burn when coal dust falls on them,” they said.
In no way ready to move away from the power plant, the villagers say they have everything they need and they are self sufficient where they are, “Where else are we supposed to go?” they ask.
Withanage says the operations of this power plant violates several laws of the country. “As per 98th clause of the Criminal Procedure Ordinance, this is a public nuisance.
Also, this has violated Environment Impact Assessment ( EIA) law and has operated without the Environment Protection License, a requirement under the National Environment Act. Both Coast Conservation Act and the Marine Pollution Prevention Act is also violated,” he said.
However, Lakvijaya contributes 40% of our daily needs to the national grid, and up to 60 % during the dry season.
Thus, shutting down the power plant is not an immediate option to address the issues. Although, three Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plants are in the pipeline, which is considered a mode of relatively cleaner power generation since they do not produce ash, according to Dr. Batagoda these will not commence power generation for a few more years.
P. L. Fernando, from Illanthadiya says, “I know Colombo depends on this plant for power generation but we can’t die for their sake.” Even residents like Fernando admit however that coal dust in the area had seen a reduction of late.
According to a report by International Energy Agency (IEA) 2010, coal power contributes to 42% of the electricity generation in the world. However, green policies of most developed countries have seen a gradual shutdown of coal power plants, a lengthy process even they are struggling with.
Carbon Brief notes that electricity generation via coal peaked in 2014, with world doubling its coal power capacity since 2000, as a result of growth in India and China, while there is a wave of retirement of coal power plants across UK and US.
The developed world is moving towards cleaner energy, while the developing world struggles with balancing clean energy and meeting its power demands. Sri Lanka needs a solid power policy that will ensure energy security and at the same time grant people a safe environment to live.