The cost of coal

August 12, 2015

Lahore is fortunate that the Punjab government last month abandoned its plan of setting up a small coal-fired power station near the BRB Canal following which the Lahore High Court disposed off a writ petition by some concerned citizens against the pollution-causing project. However, the government is moving ahead with

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Lahore is fortunate that the Punjab government last month abandoned its plan of setting up a small coal-fired power station near the BRB Canal following which the Lahore High Court disposed off a writ petition by some concerned citizens against the pollution-causing project.
However, the government is moving ahead with a similar project of a 110-MW coal-fired power plant in the suburbs of Faisalabad city. The civil society is silent over this. No elected representative of the people has raised a voice in the provincial or national assembly to enquire about the pros and cons of this project and its likely impact on the people living in that area.
The Punjab Power Development Company Limited, a government entity, is building the electricity-generation coal-fired plant at the newly-developed M-3 Industrial Estate, 15 kilometres from the Faisalabad city and four kilometres from Chak Jhumra town. At least 12 villages, with a population of nearly 30,000, lie within the three kilometre radius of the power station’s site.
According to Punjab’s Planning and Development (P&D) department, the project will be completed in 2017-18 with a total cost of Rs15.15 billion. Till June 2015, the government has already spent Rs450 million on the project while Rs2.5 billion has been allocated for FY2015-16.
There are dense residential areas within 10km of the power station and comparatively sparse residential areas within 1km to 3km of the coal plant. While the electricity generated by the plant will be dedicated to the industrial area, the pollution caused by it will hit all the residents of the surrounding areas.
The proposed coal-fired plant will be a conventional thermal power plant operating on sub-critical pressure, non-reheat steam cycle with regenerative feed heating arrangement – technology that is being abandoned in the developed world as well as China.
Sub-critical small coal-fired plants are considered to be the most polluting, least efficient and oldest power plants all across the world, but Pakistan is acquiring them. It is widely known that subcritical coal-fired power stations produce 75 percent more carbon pollution and use 67 percent more water as the most efficient coal plants being installed in the US and Europe.
According to an environmental and social impact assessment of the project carried out by MMP Consultants in association with Mott MacDonald, if elaborate mitigating measures are not taken, the Chak Jhumra coal-fired power station will pose high risk to the surrounding environment at least on three counts – creation of hazardous material and waste, noise pollution and generation of ash.
The assessment report shows that if pollution-control measures are adopted, the environmental degradation of the area will be somewhat reduced but will not disappear. For instance, the leaching of pollutants in the ground water will persist and the concentration of sulphur dioxide, using indigenous coal, would exceed the National Environmental Quality Standards (120µg/m3). Noise caused by the power plant will also remain higher than standard limits.
A major adverse effect of this plant will be the toxic constituents of coal ash produced in the process; this ash has the potential to impact air, land and human drinking water if mitigating systems are not appropriately designed and ash handling is not correctly managed.
The resultant ash from coal usage will consist of silica, lime, aluminium oxide, iron oxide, calcium oxide, sulphate, and silicate and titanium oxide. Potential health risks include cancer, neurological effects, heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.
The disposal of ash, especially flying ash, from the plant will have significant residual impacts on the ground water even after mitigation measures are taken. The water table of the area is already high and disposal of ash in landfill may cause leaching of hydrocarbons in the groundwater.
The plant will be located quite close to Faisalabad city which already has significant air pollution, according to the Environment Protection Department. A recent ambient air quality survey in the city showed that concentration of pollutants including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides were higher than the permissible national standards aka NEQS.
The operation of the coal-fired power station will lead to emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants, which have direct and indirect negative impacts on the health of human and other living organisms. Coal plants are also known to release mercury as a waste hazardous material.
The impact assessment report has suggested more than 100 pollution-control measures while building and operating the coal-fired power plant. It requires regular monitoring of air quality and ground water by the provincial Environment Protection Department (EPD), which does not have a single laboratory that consistently remains functional to monitor air quality.
It’s doubtful that the government will adopt these steps given the high cost attached to them. Thus, transparent installation of the plant and its operation are mandatory so that stakeholders know the level of emissions produced by the coal-fired power station.
Keeping in view the EPD’s defective and dysfunctional laboratories and poorly skilled staff, one can’t expect regular monitoring of mitigating measures at the coal plant. There is genuine fear that the coal plant will have a major negative impact on the surrounding environment if the civil society does not keep a close eye on it.
The fact is that in developing countries like Pakistan many coal-fired plants operate far below their design efficiencies because of poor quality coal, poor plant maintenance and lack of diagnostic tools.
It’s hard to imagine that the Punjab government officials, notorious for their lackadaisical attitude, poor work ethics and corrupt practices, will efficiently operate the Chak Jhumra coal plant. A small lapse in pollution-mitigating measures and maintenance of the plant may play havoc with the local population.
In 2004, the US enforced strict pollution-control measures at coal power stations such as doubling of the amount of scrubbers installed at power plants and additional retirements of coal capacity which led to a sharp decline in the emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
Pakistan needs to adopt such standards from the outset to avoid the negative effects of power-generation from coal. It would be better for the government to install coal-fired power stations with the latest and relatively clean technology, which could be a little more expensive but worth it when weighed against the risks involved.


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