Representatives of the group say they have taken precautions to safeguard environment, DoE lends support
S Alam Group, one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, has been accused of presenting a falsified Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report to the Department of Environment (DoE) in order to get clearance for the under construction 1320 MW coal-based SS Power Plant in Banshkhali upazila of Chittagong.
Representatives of S Alam Group have denied the accusation, claiming they have taken all necessary precautions to protect the environment. The DoE has also said the group would not have been given clearance if it had been in breach of any regulations.
The Finland-based organization Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) levelled the accusation last week in a report, “Assessment of the Banshkhali S Alam coal power (SS power 1) project EIA”.
Citing an unavailable EIA report, the study alleges that S Alam Group made false claims that baseline air quality in Banshkhali follows Bangladeshi air quality standards.
The EIA report omitted the potential impacts of mercury and some other air pollutants, which are key sources of pollution in case of any coal-based power plant. It also did not present any data about the impact of pollutant emissions on the health of locals, the study added.
The Bangladesh Working Group on External Debt (BWGED) and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) contributed to the CREA report.
Major concerns over health
After its own assessment, CREA concluded that the proposed power plant would be responsible for an estimated 30,000 air pollutant related deaths over an operating life of 30 years.
The mercury emissions from the plant can lead to a dangerous level of deposition for around 7.4 million people dwelling in the area, making it the largest source of toxic air pollutants in the country, the CREA report said.
Exposure to pollutant particles can increase the risk of death from lung cancer, stroke, heart diseases and respiratory diseases.
Rejecting the claims by CREA, SS Power 1 Limited Site Project Manager (Electrical) Md Faizur Rahman said: “I am sure the mercury report can be found somewhere, I can assure you that following further inspection we are not responsible for any breaches. We try to comply with every rule and regulation that the government has standardized for us to fulfill. How else would we get clearance?”
He added that a third-party organization had been hired to assess the health impact and it submits a report every month.
“We have installed a 275m long chimney, way above the standard requirement to contain the fly ash from coal that can affect people or endanger the environment. Even if that fails to contain any pollutant particles, we have used an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) that will filter any smoke or dust,” Rahman further said.
Masud Iqbal Md Shameem, director (environmental clearance) of the DoE, said: “Burning coal doesn’t mean it will emit mercury definitely. The source of the coal matters the most in terms of mercury emissions. Maybe the EIA report did not mention mercury because there was not any in the coal.
“They have to comply with our mandatory requirements. They cannot use any coal with high sulphur or mercury content. After that, they must ensure a proper installation of measures to control the emission of pollutant particles. Otherwise, they would not be permitted to operate the power plant in the first place,” he added.
Rights groups urge review of EIA report
Dr Kazi Maruful Islam, convener of BWGED and professor at the department of development studies of Dhaka University, said: “The EIA report shows that the presence of every pollutant particle in the air around Banshkhali power plant is much higher than levels permitted by Bangladeshi air quality standards.
“Coal-based power plants fall under the red list business category. For this purpose, they should have measured the data while keeping the worst-case scenario in mind, whereas the report only took general-level data,” he added.
When Dhaka Tribune contacted Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst of CREA, he said claims that mercury might be absent from coal were outlandish.
“There is no coal available on the market that does not contain mercury. If there was a decision or a commitment to purchase coal with low mercury content, that would have to be written down in the environmental management plan and in the environmental permit of the project, so that the commitment is enforceable,” he said.
“Even if coal with relatively low mercury content was burned, there would regardless be mercury emissions and mercury-containing combustion wastes that should be addressed in the environmental impact assessment,” the lead analyst added.
The CREA report said a 24-hour daily sampling for a full year is required to measure annual pollutant concentrations for any standard compliance EIA report. However, the EIA report for S Alam Group’s clearance only collected data for eight hours a day.
Mohammed Mukhteruzzaman, environmental specialist at the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), the organization that carried out the EIA assessment for the SS Power Plant, said: “The assessment was conducted in 2015. Back then, the place was in turmoil and was not very favourable to conduct a 24-hour-long study. We took the data for 8 hours, but there is a formula to convert the data into a 24-hour formula; it is an accepted procedure.
“Moreover we conducted an air shape assessment in the adjacent 50x50km area, to analyze what type of pollutants are present in the surrounding area of the power plant. This is a more recent study, which I think the report failed to consider since they studied only the first unit of the power plant,” he added.
String of controversies
On April 17, five workers of the power plant were killed by police for protesting wage issues. Before that, on April 4, 2016, four villagers were killed during a clash over acquisition of land for the power plant project.
The Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA) obtained the EIA report from a government source and sought assistance from CREA to study it.
BELA Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said: “An EIA report is a public document; their first offense is trying to make it unavailable for the public. Why would they hide it if there is nothing wrong? I think the DoE had immense political pressure to issue clearance for this particular power plant. As we can all see, this project has been violating law after law since the beginning.”
She added that BELA would present the findings of CREA to the DoE very soon and ask it not issue any further EIA clearance for Banshkhali power plant unless breaches of compliance are rectified.
“There is already a case pending in court against S Alam for the killing of labourers recently. If needed, we will go to court again,” she added.
When asked what the next step to address this issue could be, a BWGED official said: “I believe our DoE is capable of reviewing such reports and mitigating emissions if it really has that intention to do so.
“Even if we consider that there has been a mistake in issuing the initial EIA report, it can monitor and review the Environment Management Plan (EMP), which is a crucial document of how it is planning to manage air pollutants and other industrial waste,” the official added.