Say NO to Rampal Power Plant

(Co-written with A.K.M. Wahiduzzaman, assistant professor of geography at the National University of Bangladesh. This article has been also published here in Daily New Age and here in AlalODulal blog)

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THE proposed Rampal power plant hogged the headlines for the first time when the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, visited India in January 2010. The joint communiqué signed by the two prime ministers contained a proposal for the plant near Sundarban, in light of which the National Thermal Power Corporation of India and the Power Development Board of Bangladesh signed a treaty in 2012. The treaty proposes establishment of two 660-megawatt power units at Rampal. Meanwhile, land had been allocated for the power plant on December 27, 2010 without any environmental assessment.

Experts and environmentalists in Bangladesh began to stage protests and organise dialogues against the proposed power plant in view of its potential threat to the environment. The High Court subsequently ruled against the installation of the plant without environmental assessment. In response to the court’s ruling, the Department of Environment hastily conducted an environmental impact assessment and concluded that the proposed plant was environment-friendly. The department posted the EIA report online, seeking feedback from the public, although the court had ordered it to seek public opinion before finalising the report. Finally, on the basis of the flawed EIA process, the governments of Bangladesh and India entered into an agreement on April 20, 2013, to install the plant.

Intriguingly, the green panel of the Indian environment ministry rejected a NTPC proposal for installation of a similar 1,320-megawatt power plant in Chhattisgarh on the ground that the proposed plant was ‘highly threatening to the environment’. The panel subsequently published the EIA report and justified its disapproval. A comparison between the EIA reports on the two NTPC proposals clearly indicates that the Bangladeshi authorities did not go by the due processes.

Impact distance from Sundarban

THE EIA report by the environment department designates the area within a 10-kilometre radius of Sundarban as environmentally critical. The department argues that, since the proposed plant site is 14 kilometres away from the forest, it does not fall within the environmentally critical area. However, findings through geographical information system indicate that the distance of the proposed site from Sundarban is between 9 and 13 kilometres.

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[Photo 2: Location map of Rampal Coal Based Thermal Electricity Plant showing distance from Sundarbans]
The Wild Life Protection Act 1972 of India prohibits installation of a power generation plant within a 15-kilometre radius of wildlife reserves, national parks and forests. Suffice to say, the NTPC proposal would not have been approved, had the planned site been in India. Moreover, approval of a coal-based power plant so close to a reserve forest runs counter with relevant international norms and regulations.

Human habitation, agriculture and fishery

THERE also seem to be remarkable inconsistencies in land requirement and acquisition for the proposed plant. The discarded NTPC proposal for the Chhattisgarh plant envisaged acquisition of 792 acres of land whereas, in case of the Rampal plant, the land requirement is 1,834 acres, consisting significantly of farmland, wetland and human habitat. More than 95 per cent of the allocated land is harvestable three times a year and produces 1,285 tonnes of rice and 561.41 tonnes of fish every year. Over 8,000 families are permanent residents of the allocated land and among them 7,500 families live on agriculture and fisheries.

According to the environment department’s EIA report even, 75 per cent of the environmentally critical area is used for farming and produces 62,353 tonnes of rice and 140,461 tonnes of other crops every year. The rivers and canals there are connected with the mangrove forest and produce 5,218.66 tonnes of fish every year. Once the plant is established, the entire area of impact is going to be unsuitable for farming, jeopardising the significant amount of production of crops and fishes.

The EIA report, on the one hand, states that, if well-managed, the plant will not affect agriculture and livelihoods within a radius of 10 kilometres and, on the other, points out that activities like site construction, dredging, discharge of chemicals due to increased maritime transports, etc will severely affect the adjacent rivers, canals and agriculture, adding to high causative likeliness of landslide in the area. The contradiction is too obvious to overlook.

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[Photo 3: Impact area of the proposed power plant]

Effects at development stage of infrastructure

THE EIA report lists a number of probable damages that could entail at the development stage of the power plant infrastructure. They are increased maritime transports, undue chemical discharges from naval vehicles, sound and light pollution, etc. It will hamper the ecosystem which comprises Royal Bengal Tigers, deer, dolphins and the forestry. Deforestation and dredging that would be done to facilitate transportation will also harm the local environment.

Impact of power plant operation

ACCORDING to the EIA report, 4.72 million tonnes of coal will be burnt to produce 1,320 megawatts of electricity. According to Avogadro’s law, a tonne of burnt coal will produce 2.86 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Therefore, at a load factor of 80 per cent, the plant will produce 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. The EIA report also mentions that 7.9 million tonnes from it will be added to fly ash. It is obvious that at least 7.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be produced from the plant.

In addition to carbon dioxide, the plant will release 142 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 85 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide every day, totalling 51,830 tonnes and 31,025 tonnes respectively in a year. As a result, the natural density of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in Sundarban will increase manifold and could trigger the eventual destruction of the forest.

Shockingly, the EIA report categorises Sundarban as a residential area and village, apparently to keep the proposed plant beyond the ambit of the Environment Preservation Act 1997, which prohibits artificial increase in the amount of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide above 30 microgram per cubic metre of air in and around an environmentally sensitive area. According to the EIA report, this amount in and around the area of the proposed power plant, upon completion, would be 54 microgram. It is worth noting that the act permits 80 microgram of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air in ‘residential area and village’.

Again, according to the EIA report, 9,150 cubic metres would be required from the river Passur every hour for rotation of turbines and use as coolant, while 5,150 cubic metres would be released back. The resultant loss of water, i.e. 4,000 cubic metres, would impact the salinity, flow, tidal patterns, habitats and ecosystem of the river, an issue conveniently ignored in the report.

The report also states that 4,000 cubic metres per hour of water is an insignificant figure because it is only one per cent of the river’s water flow during dry season. However, the figure of ‘1 per cent’ is taken from the reading of 2005. Over the period of the past eight years, the water flow of the river has significantly decreased, notably due to newly constructed dams between the river and her source in India. At the same time, the demand for water has gone up for both household and industrial use.

Shockingly still, the EIA report completely ignores the issue of ‘zero discharge’, which is relevant following extraction from the river. It is scientifically proven that discharged water from a coal power plant is chemically hazardous. This is why the coal-based power plants follow the policy of ‘zero discharge’. The NTPC, in fact, upheld the policy of ‘zero discharge’ in its own EIA report for the proposed but eventually discarded power plant in Chhattisgarh. It is unfortunate that what was being considered by the authorities as ‘hazardous’ for India has been not only ignored but also labelled as ‘environmentally okay’ by the Bangladeshi authorities. The EIA report even ignores the fact that the discharged 5,150 cubic metres of water will raise the water temperature of the Passur, resulting in a range of adverse effects.

The EIA report does not highlight the change in the atmospheric temperature as result of the power plant, either. The report says the temperature of the plant’s gaseous discharge, released in the atmosphere from a 275-metre high chimney, will be 125 degrees Celsius. It ‘hopes’ that the discharge will not cause a rise in the local atmospheric temperature. Suffice to say, such discharge would indeed raise the surrounding atmospheric temperature.

The most hazardous waste of the Rampal power plant will be two types of ash. As result of burning 4.72 million tonnes of coal per year, 750,000 tonnes of fly ash and 200,000 tonnes of bottom ash will be produced. These wastes, comprising fly ash, bottom ash and liquid ash, are extremely hazardous. They contain hazardous and radioactive metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, barium, cadmium, chromium, selenium and radium. The EIA report again resorts to evasion by stating that fly ash will be filtered before discharging through the chimney, and ‘some ash’ ‘may’ get into the atmosphere. The report deliberately keeps mum about the amount of this ‘some ash’. Even if it is one per cent of the ash produced per year, it means 7,500 tonnes of fly ash will be released in and around Sundarban, which would not only fatally affect the forest but also cause a range of lung diseases including pneumonia to people living nearby.

About waste management, the EIA report says fly ash ‘could’ be used in cement factories and brickfields, which appears tenuous. For example, Barapukuria produces more than 300 tonnes of fly ash in a day, none of which has been ever used in cement factories and brickfields. Rather, they are found dumped in surrounding locations which is spirally affecting the environment. Even after categorising the waste as ‘hazardous’, the report talks of 1,414 acres of landfill by these wastes. One wonders how a ‘Department of Environment’ can even suggest a process like that!

Moreover, operations of a coal-based power plant entail turbine rotations, generators, compressors, pumps, cooling towers and transportations and manoeuvring of heavy loads and machineries, which are active reasons of extensive sound pollution; and given the proposed location of the plant, there would be multiplying impacts of such sound pollution. The EIA report talks of 50db limit during the day and 40db limit during night, but rules out any ‘sound pollution’, which it states would be prevented by the plant’s ‘green boundary’, meaning an artificial boundary made of trees around the plant. The report unfortunately fails to explain how does the department expect that the trees to grow big enough to prevent sound pollution from the very first day of the plant’s operations.

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[Photo 4: Coal Transportation and handling for Rampal Project]

[Photo 4: Coal Transportation and handling for Rampal Project]

Pollution by coal transportation

ANOTHER major threat to the surrounding environment will be the transportation of a huge amount of coal to the plant. It is mentioned that 4.72 million tonnes of imported coal will be transported to Sundarban’s Akram Point using large ships. From there, lighterages will ship the coal to the plant. According to this plan, large ships will sail to the Akram Point, which is 30 kilometres deep into Sundarban, 59 times a year. The rest of the way to the plant, spanning 67 kilometres, will covered by a number of lighterages 236 times a year.

Even according to the evasive EIA report, the transportation of coal will affect the environment from three aspects. First, discharge of coal, dirt, fuel and other chemicals from the frequently sailing large and small ships will heavily contaminate the adjacent sea, rivers and the coast. Second, at Akram Point, where the transfer from the large ships to the small lighterages will take place, discharge of coal wastes to river water will cause contamination. Third, extensively frequent maritime transportation throughout the Passur will damage its banks, adding to the sound and light pollutions caused by the ships.

Infeasibility

APART from extensive environmental drawbacks, the proposed Rampal plant is financially infeasible. Fifteen per cent of the costs will borne by the power board, 15 per cent by the NTPC while the rest by bank loans. The electricity produced by the plant will be purchased by the power board, and the profit after the purchase will be equally split between the PDB and the NTPC. Here, coal price has been set to be the basis of the power price. The agreement has set the purchase of coal at a price of $145, which would force the PDB to buy the power at a price of not less than Tk 8.85, more than double the prices fixed for the proposed coal-based plants in Dhaka’s Mawa (Tk 4), Chittagong’s Anwara (Tk 3.8) and Khulna’s Labanchara (Tk 3.8).

The only way to curb the direct public impact of this high price is subsidy. In other words, Bangladesh is eventually going to count losses for Rampal while the Indian NTPC makes profit.

In search of alternative energy

The demand for energy is spiralling in view of industrialisation and population growth. It is thus imperative that, before going for environmentally risky projects, alternative sources should be considered. Surprisingly, most of the power stations in Bangladesh generate thermal power. The fundamental idea of these stations is to use gas-consuming steam turbines which generate electricity by rotating. These stations consume gas worth Tk 1.80 to Tk 3.28 per unit with a twofold total cost and thus fail to generate power profitably.

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[Photo 5: Tidal waves at the Sandweep Channel according to the International Marine Electronic Chart]

[Photo 5: Tidal waves at the Sandweep Channel according to the International Marine Electronic Chart]

On other hand, per unit gas consumption will be only Tk 0.7 and total cost Tk 1.75, if smaller power stations comprising 4MW gas generators are considered. The few existing stations in Bangladesh to generate power in this way sell electricity to the PDB at Tk 3.26 per unit and still make profit. Replacing existing thermal power plants with such gas generator-based plants can be a mean to shift toward a more profitable power generation approach. Besides, gas generators are easy to repair and even much feasible to replace, without any of these causing any major disruption to the whole process.

Another attractive and environmentally safe way can be the exploitation of the tidal waves of the Bay of Bengal to generate power. Australia already has tidal power plants those bank on only two nautical miles per hour of tidal waves, whereas it is more than two nautical miles at all points in the Bay of Bengal. According to the International Marine Electronic Chart, there are 5.5 nautical miles per hour tidal waves at the Sandweep Channel. The Sandweep Channel alone can ensure nearly 300 megawatts of power if the waves can be utilised. The other spots where such initiatives can be taken are Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar.

Conclusion

WHILE we should look for newer sources of energy to support the pace of growth, Sundarban is too a high price to pay for it, both environmentally and economically. The only way to save the wildlife and forestry of Sundarban right now is to drop the proposed Rampal coal-based power plant.

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