Monday, May 27th, 2013

Toward environmental self- destruction

Sadiqur Rahman of New Age learns from reports and experts about the environmental and ecological threat the Rampal power plant project poses to Sundarban and adjoining areas and which the government is stubborn at overlooking

On April 20, Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) and Indian National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) signed three major deals under Bangladesh-India Friend Power Company (BIFPC), a joint asset of the two countries, recently formed to deal with power trading between the two countries.
In so doing, despite protests by environmentalists and locals of Rampal under Bagerhat district, the controversial Rampal power plant project made further progress as it will be constructed just four kilometres away from the ecologically critical area of Sundarban, the world’s largest mangrove forest that Bangladesh is famous for.
The government’s inclination toward the project, despite the High Court’s direction to consider this project with higher importance due to the project area’s nearness to the Sundarbans, has raised many questions. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the motives that drove the Bangladesh government to give the green signal to this project, when India’s NTPC itself did not set up such a thermal power plant project within 25 kilometres of any of its forest reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, agricultural plots, residential areas and others.
However, the government bodies related to the project do not want to give any information to the media regarding the project and its progress.

Going backwards
BPDB and NTPC signed a supplementary agreement for the newly formed joint venture Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC).
Bangladesh government signed a deal with the BIFPC for the project implementation. The PDB signed another agreement with the BIFPC on the purchase of electricity to be produced from the plant for 25 years, without finalising the price at which the state-run power buyer will buy electricity from the Rampal power plant.
According to the deals, the BIFPC is awarded to build a super-pulverised coal-fired thermal power plant with a capacity to generate 1,320 MW. But the BIFPC is yet to get environmental clearance from the Department of Environment (DoE).
Environment and energy experts term the move as ‘putting cart before horse’ as the company still needs to confirm the viability of the project, after examining the environmental impacts of the project and its cost analysis.
On January 10, 2010, prime minister Sheikh Hasina had sought Indian help in power and energy sector during her state tour to India. Later on February 20, Indian energy secretary HS Brahma came to Bangladesh and met with his Bangladeshi counterpart Abul Kalam Azad to discuss the issue.
The officials then decided to build a coal-based thermal power plant jointly by the Indian state owned NTPC and BPDB. They also decided to spend $ 1.8 billion dollar in constructing the 1,320 MW power plant to be owned by both countries equally.
However, ever since the beginning, there has been no consistency in the government activities to implement the project.
After choosing the area for the project, the government began acquiring 1,834 acres of land from December 27, 2010 and commenced preconstruction soil filling before getting clearance from the DoE.
On February 28, 2011, the High Court stayed the project over an ‘environmentally critical area’ without any prior feasibility study for the project, responding to a writ petition filed by local farmers.
On January 29, 2012, BPDB and NTPC signed an agreement to form BIFPC which has been awarded to implement the project. That move initially geared up the project’s implementation process. BPDB with the assistance of local government started filling the rivers and cannels surrounding the project area.
On March 22, last year, in a response to another writ petition, the High Court again issued a rule upon the government to explain about the legality of the thermal power plant project implementation.
However, on August 12, that year, the High Court ordered the government to explain why the water bodies filling should not be declared illegal responding to a writ petition filed by Save the Sundarban, a local non-government organisation (NGO).
Dr Abdul Matin, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), informs Xtra that all the writ petitions except one are yet to be resolved by the High Court. ‘But the government, violating the legal obstacles, has continued the project. This is a very rare example across the world,’ he says.
Government authorities in the power sector also tried to estimate the environmental impacts due to a thermal power plant through its assigned consultant, Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), a local expert group bound to government which submitted their findings (Environmental Impacts Assessment, shortly EIA) to BPDB at the last of January this year. BPDB published it through its website, seeking public compliance and opinion.
Environmentalists again criticised the EIA report as the authority allowed only two weeks for submitting complaints against the report, which is nearly 672 pages of English text. The environmental activists under several groups still responded with clarified complaints within the given period to the BPDB.
On April 12 this year, many environmentalists and locals from Rampal attended a
‘Peoples Consultation’ programme arranged by BPDB at its Dhaka office. The participants told Xtra that at that programme the BPDB tactfully avoided the complaints placed to present readymade clarifications of the concerned environmental impacts of the project.
Engineer Kallol Mostafa, a delegate of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, who also attended that programme, regrets that the programme was an ‘eye-wash’. ‘It was only for confusing the less aware people of the region and a step for gaining environmental certificate from the DoE,’ he speculates.
Kallol informs Xtra that the officials could not answer many critical questions raised by both sides of local farmers and environmentalists at that programme. ‘They did not clarify about the rationale behind revealing EIA report after completion of all the logistic works including acquiring lands, evacuating inhabitants from the project area, signing deals with India and so on,’ Kallal says. He adds, ‘They also avoided a question from us about how the Indian company received permission to set up such a thermal plant when India does not allow such plants within its own environmentally important areas.’

EIA report or ‘Granting papers’
CEGIS, after assessing the future environment and other impacts of the proposed thermal power plant at Rampal for three years, submitted the EIA report to the BPDB on January this year.
According to the EIA report, the proposed thermal plants would consist of two units of 660 MW electricity generators. The construction process for the first unit would be complete after about 48 months or four years. The second unit would require another six months.
The EIA report revealed that the area’s (project area and its 10 kilometres radius areas) major agricultural outputs come from the production of paddy, estimated at 62,353 metric ton rice and 140,461 metric tons of non-rice crops annually. The report also estimated that the livestock and poultry population per households comprise of three to four cattle, two to three buffaloes, four goats, one sheep, five ducks and six to seven chickens respectively.
The report stated that the fisheries resources of the project area are ‘rich and diversified’ with around 120 aquatic species. Overall fish inhabitant in the area is about 9,351.62 hector, of which 735.39 hectare is on the project area. Shrimp and fish farms, rivers, khals, intertidal creeks, mangrove area and other surface areas occupy about 62 per cent of the project area.
The report also mentioned that the entire area ‘has a close connection with mangrove forest (Sundarban) providing support to a number of marine and fresh water fishes.’
CEGIS estimated the annual fisheries production in the project area is 569, 41 metric tons and 5,218.66 metric tons in the adjacent areas (EIA report: Page 194, 197, 198, 204).
The EIA report describes that the construction work including land filling by river dredging, sand filling, site clearance and physical construction of plant setup etc may have impacts on open water fish habitats, fish diversity and fisheries production of this area. The report assures that the project adopts waste management plan, so impact on fish habitats due to waste discharge would be minimum.
It states also that open water fisheries habitats like river Passur and Maidara, khals and inter-tidal area may be affected due to dredging, traffic movements and oil and chemical spilling.(EIA report, page: 266)
However, the report admits that the materials and equipment during the construction period (nearly five years) would be transported by the rivers flowing through Sundarban to the project site. As such the frequencies of the vessels will relatively increase. The report suspects that if navigational spillage, noise, speed, lighting, waste disposal rules regulations are not properly maintained, it may impact the Sundarban ecosystem especially Royal Bengal Tiger, deer, crocodile, dolphins, mangroves and others (EIA report, page: 268)
Also the report says that the acquisition of the lands may cause loss of these habitats but the benefits expected by the government will overcome the losses.
The report assures that about BDT 12,930 million will be estimated cost of the pollution abatement measures along with additional environmental management plant.
According to the report, Bangladesh government has approved to spend about BDT 277.2 million per year for regional socio-economic development. It also predicts that the outcomes of the plant will add BDT 7,4281.5 million as national revenue by supplying electricity to the national grid.
Kallol Mostofa feels that the EIA report has not showed the actual impacts. ‘In the report, CEGIS stated that the intensity of Sulphur Dioxide emitted by the plant would be 53 micro gram per cubic metre of the ambient air, which is less than the mark set by DoE for residential area (80 micro gram per cubic metre).
For justifying this, EIA report labelled the project area as a ‘residential and rural area’. A shocked Kallol exclaims, ‘How can the area which is four kilometres near from the ECA of Sundarban be termed as residential area!’
According to him, 30 micro grams per cubic metre is the maximum rate of Sulphur Dioxide intensity in such ecologically important area. He criticises the report for not even revealing the real harmful effects of Nitrogen Dioxide, Carbon Dioxide concentration at the ambient air of the entire area.
According to the EIA report, the plant would absorb 9,150 cubic metre salt free water from the River Passur per hour and discharge back to 5,150 cubic metre at the same time. However the rate would remain the same throughout the year.
But the water flows of that river is not static every time and the rate of water withdrawal would certainly impact on the water network of that area. The report only states that the process ‘may not change the hydrological character of the water of River Passur.’ The report is not clear about the temperature, quality of the discharged water from the plant. ‘It can be said that the discharged water certainly would contain high temperature while it will pour into the River Passur and this would destroy the liveable environment to the aquatic creatures,’ dreads Kallol.
The report states that 750,000 tonnes of fly ash and 200,000 tonnes of bottom ash would be produced by the plant and that pile of ashes would be utilised by filling for land development purpose. Environment experts fear that it would seriously pollute water bodies of the entire area after spilling huge amount of harmful substances draining to the water bodies.

What India denied, Bangladesh allowed
It has been pointed out by experts that if the project works out, around 50,000 people would need to be evacuated from Shapmari, Koi Gardashkathi, Baserkhali, Sailte Khali, Graham Khali, Kapash Danga and Chulkathi villages in the adjoining areas of Rampal.
Environment and ecology experts have predicted that the power plant will release various harmful gaseous substances like Carbon Monoxide, Oxides of Nitrogen, Sulfur Dioxide, Aldehydes (organic compound), Hydrocarbons and huge amount of fly ash to the entire environment.
An individual EIA report, titled ‘Environmental impact of Coal based power plant of Rampal on the Sundarban and Surrounding areas’, prepared by Dr Abdulllah Harun Chowdhury, professor of Environmental Science Discipline of the Khulna University, concludes that most impacts of coal-fired power plant are ‘negative and irreversible’, which ‘cannot be mitigated in any way’. It indicated that ‘climate, topography, land use pattern, air and water (surface and ground) quality, wetlands, floral and faunal diversity, capture fisheries and tourism will be affected permanently due to the plant’.
India was aware of such affects to the ecology and environment which is why such plants never could be set up there.
According to the ministry of environment and forests of India, locations of thermal power plant are not allowed within 25 kilometres of the outer periphery of any ecological sensitive areas, forest or prime agriculture lands. Additionally, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 of India, directs that any ecological sensitive areas like national parks, wildlife sanctuaries or reserve forests should not be possessed within 15 kilometres of thermal power plant.
Following the laws, Indian central green panel (Green Tribunal) denied approval for setting up a thermal power plant, to be built by NTPC, similar in nature of the proposed Rampal power plant, at Gadarwara of Madhya Pradesh. On October 8, 2010, The Hindu published a report in its website quoting the green panels comment, ‘This site comprises a vast portion of double crop agricultural lands which is unacceptable.’
The earlier proposed location for the project was Gajmara in the same state. However, the NTPC had to shift the location again from Gadarwara to Daripalli in Orissa Pradesh. But the work was halted at Daripalli as the implementing authorities did not get required approval from the environment and state authorities.
Also, the NTPC could not gain public support in recent years for such projects. On March 1, 2011, India Today published a report in its online version, titled ‘Andhra villagers protest against thermal power plant, 2 killed’, which reported that mobs were protesting a controversial thermal power plant at Kakarapalli area in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh. The report also stated quoting Kakarapalli people that they feared the power plant would destroy all the ponds and swamp water bodies in the area thereby stripping the locals of their livelihood.
Thus, the environmental experts of Bangladesh are curious about the intention of the government move as to implement harmful thermal power project near to Sundarban, even though the country undergoes serious power shortage during the harvest season.
M Inamul Haque, coordinator of the National Committee to Protect Land, Water, Agricultural and Forest Resource, tells Xtra that the government may have thought that this would be the easiest way to import coal from abroad through ships. He regrets, ‘The government wants to open Bangladesh lands for Indian investment while exhausting local environment by making these lands the dump-ponds of harmful industrial waste.’

Deaf and dumb?
Recently Xtra tried to communicate with the authorities related to the project. On May 14, Xtra tried to setup an appointment with engineer MD Waji Ullah, executive director of CEGIS, to talk about the issue. Waji Ullah advised Xtra to call him two days later so he can confirm a convenient time for the interview.
On May 16, Xtra again called Waji Ullah. But the executive director of CEGIS this time said that he cannot make any comments on the EIA report that they have prepared, ‘due to restrictions from high officials’. He, however, advised Xtra to communicate with the project officials.
On that day, Xtra went to the project office at BPDB. Additional project director of the Rampal power plant, Rabindranath Samaddar refused to explain anything about the flaws of the EIA report, pointed out by the environmental experts, to Xtra.
He informed that an order from secretariat level came to him that no one in the project should talk to journalists without prior permission from the higher level.
He advised Xtra, ‘You should talk to the public relation officer (PRO) of the BPDB’ while providing the PRO’s cell number. Xtra tried to communicate with the PRO several times but the public relations officer did not answer the calls.
Dr Matin of BAPA observes that the government may be eager to implement this project while avoiding all the concerning issues to realise their desire to set up a thermal power plant in Bangladeshi territory with the help of India. But to do this, government and its associates are betraying the public as they have been confusing the locals of Rampal and the masses with flawed information that the proposed plant would not be harmful to Sundanban. ‘At present, they are avoiding to explain all their moves related to the project as they are probably afraid it would reveal their fraudulent activities,’ he feels. ‘But they have to explain this to the people, someday,’ concludes Matin.

Source: Toward environmental self- destruction
New Age Xtra, Friday, May 24, 2013