Environmental clearances

Mining concerns

Print edition : February 21, 2014

At Chendipada in Angul district of Odisha, a coal-laden truck leaving the mine area. Photo: lingaraj panda

The decision to allow the expansion of coal mines without environmental clearances and a public hearing illustrates the MoEF’s role as a facilitator for the mining industry rather than as a custodian of a valuable natural resource.

THE importance of coal as a natural resource has been at the centre of public discourse for some time now, more so with the Supreme Court hearing a series of public interest litigation (PIL) petitions questioning the arbitrary and non-transparent system followed by the Central government in the allocation of coal blocks. The impact of coal mining on the environment and, as a consequence, on the livelihoods of the local people needs to be factored into this discourse, and a method must be found for the optimum use of natural resources without harming the environment. In March 2013, the Union Cabinet Committee on Investment initiated steps to fast-track coal-mining projects without looking at the threats mining activities could pose to the environment. Now, M. Veerappa Moily, who has succeeded Jayanthi Natarajan as the Minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF), is merely expediting the process that had already been set in motion.

On January 14, the MoEF decided to allow the expansion of the existing coal-mining projects up to 50 per cent without carrying out a public hearing as mandated under the environmental appraisal process. In an official memorandum, the Ministry stated that it had decided to allow a one-time capacity expansion of up to 50 per cent, or incremental production of up to 1 million tonnes a year, whichever is higher. The memorandum noted that the decision was taken following a request from the Ministry of Coal to allow capacity expansion for smaller coal mining projects as the existing guidelines only resulted in a small increase in production. This decision could be seen to expedite an earlier decision taken on March 20, 2013, by the Cabinet Committee on Investment to allow capacity expansion of coal projects up to 25 per cent without a public hearing.

This decision illustrates the role adopted by the MoEF as a facilitator for the mining industry rather than as the custodian of a valuable natural resource. R. Sreedhar, chairperson of Mines, Minerals and People, pointed out the risks to the environment arising out of the recent decision. “When the MoEF does not have any mechanism to ensure that companies do not violate environmental norms in carrying out mining, how can they allow expansion without a public hearing? The expansion of Bhuvaneshwari open-cast mine in Angul district of Odisha is a case in point. The mine is operated by Mahanadi Coalfields Limited and has been expanded over the past two years without monitoring its impact on the environment. The quantum of dust released as a result of the project was not monitored properly,” he told Frontline.

The expert appraisal committee of the MoEF is now considering an application for capacity expansion of the Bhuvaneshwari open-cast mine from 20 mtpa (million tonnes per annum) to 25 mtpa.

A total of 417 projects, which have been accepted for consideration, are listed on the Cabinet Committee on Investment website at the time of writing this report.

On January 21, the MoEF’s expert appraisal committee for thermal and coal-mining projects considered granting environmental clearance to Gare IV/6 coal-mining project, owned by Jindal Steel and Power Limited, in Chhattisgarh. This project, apart from posing environmental and health hazards, involves major displacement of people. In an analysis of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out for the project, the EIA Resource and Response Centre highlighted some problems overlooked in the assessment submitted for consideration by the company. The paper states, “The villages of Khemharia, Karuwahi [near the north-eastern seam boundary] are hardly a few hundred metres away, the proponent plans to start mining from this seam. Around 10 tonnes a day of explosives is planned to be used. Although there is a description of controlled blasting, experience has shown that these cause damage to structures nearby.” Also, the evacuation of coal in this corridor of coal block is expected to increase the load on public infrastructure, with a large fleet of polluting vehicles making daily trips. Exhaust emissions of unburnt hydrocarbons from these blocks are expected to have a direct impact on human health. These risks are not highlighted in the EIA.

The paper notes that the EIA makes sketchy and contradictory references to the impact on climate change. Also, the section on resettlement and rehabilitation does not list who is going to be affected by the project.

There has been persistent concern about the public hearings held as part of this project. Sreedhar said, “In 2008, a mock public hearing was conducted by the company with the purpose of bulldozing the project. Subsequently, the National Green Tribunal ruled that the public hearing was not carried out as per the law and referred the project back to the MoEF. Following this, a heavily policed public hearing was carried out on September 25, 2013, in Tehli Rampur, where the project-affected people of the district could not raise any genuine concerns.”

Even with respect to the ongoing coal-mining projects that have received environmental clearance, major concerns over environmental pollution and impact on livelihoods have been raised. In September 2013, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government granted the Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh to Essar and Hindalco, ignoring environmental issues and livelihoods concerns of the tribal inhabitants of the area. On January 28, the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPCB) ordered Essar Energy to stop all operations at its coal-operated power plant at Mahan in Singrauli district. In September last year, the MPCB’s regional office raised an alarm over the large quantities of fly ash flowing from the plant into the Garha stream and the surrounding areas. The mining project has faced huge protests from the local tribal people. In August 2013, tribal communities from 11 villages situated around the Mahan forests organised a rally against the mining operations, under the umbrella of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti.

A study carried out by Mines, Minerals and People in 2013 in Chargaon village of Chandrapur district in Maharashtra illustrates the devastating impact of coal mines on the livelihoods of the local people. The study notes that the village, located about 10 kilometres from the tehsil headquarters, is virtually surrounded by the coal mines of Western Coalfields Limited and some private companies, making it inaccessible by public transport. Instances of damage to crops by wild boars have increased following disturbances caused to the environment by the expanding mining activities. In the coal block allocation case, the Centre informed the Supreme Court on January 15 that 41 coal blocks that had not received environmental clearance would be given four to six weeks’ time to get a clearance following which a final decision on de-allocation would be taken.

Shah panel report

In a related development, the Centre has refused to extend the term of the Justice M.B. Shah Commission constituted in November 2010 to inquire into illegal mining of iron ore and manganese. The commission has submitted six reports to the Ministry of Mines so far. It was given its first extension on July 17, 2012. On July 3, 2013, the commission sought another extension as its term was about to expire. On July 18, the government communicated to the commission that its term would be extended only by three months. The commission, after submitting its report on illegal mining in Goad, had begun investigating the mining sector in Chhattisgarh. In June 2013, it submitted a report on illegal mining of iron and manganese ores in Odisha. This report highlighted major illegalities in the functioning of mines in the State. In an ongoing case in the Supreme Court ( T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India & Ors), the Centre, when asked to make the contents of the report public, maintained that the report would be submitted to the court in a sealed cover after it was tabled in Parliament. The Centre, in its submission, stated, “The report submitted by the commission is to be placed before the legislature, that is, Parliament in this case, along with the action taken report within a period of six months of such submission in terms of Section 3(4) of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952.” The Centre requested the court to reconsider its direction to the Centre to present the report.

The executive summary of the report, accessed by Frontline, found that all types of illegal mining were being carried out in Odisha. It has observed that there is “complete disregard and contempt for law and lawful authorities on the part of the emerging breed of entrepreneurs, taking advantage of the country’s natural, non-renewable assets/ resources for export earnings.” It has noted that 176 mines in Odisha are located in the dense forest areas. The MoEF had not granted permission for diversion of forest area in the case of 98 mining leases. Of these 98 mines, 47 are being operated without a forest clearance. Ten mining leases are located in Mayurbhanj district and fall within a 10-km radius of the outer boundary of the Simlipal National Park. Further, 31 mines are adjacent to the projected elephant corridor in Sundargarh and Keonjhar districts. The report has found major violations of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, in the mining operations across the State. Large-scale mining operations have also been found to have polluted the air and groundwater.

By refusing to make the contents of the Shah Commission report public and by not giving an extension to the Commission, the Centre has displayed a lack of commitment to the conservation of the environment.

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