-The Union environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) has recommended environmental clearance for expanding the capacity of the Kulda opencast coal mine in Odisha’s Sundargarh district by 20%, overriding opposition by residents concerned over the project’s impact on their health, agriculture and water bodies.
The mine’s output will now increase from the current 14 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) to 19.60 MTPA.
The clearance was recommended on condition that Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL) which owns the mine, will plant 100,000 native trees with broad leaves along the villages and 50,000 trees along the transportation route in two years to prevent air pollution, according to the latest minutes of the EAC published on the Parivesh website.
The EAC has also directed MCL to operationalise three air quality monitoring stations by March, update related data in real time on the company website and display it in the mining lease area.
Residents of nine villages in Himgiri Tehsil of Sundargarh district had written to the EAC last month that the MCL did not comply with conditions of the green clearance recommended in February 2018 for capacity expansion from 10 MTPA to 14 MTPA.
In February 2018, an environmental clearance was granted only for a year, but it was extended to 30 years in January 2020. According to locals, the mine has not complied with environmental conditions since 2007, when it started producing coal.
MCL, in its compliance reports, submitted that it had avoided transporting coal through any village. Residents have countered that claim with pictures of coal being transported through village roads.
“The route through which transportation happens is flanked on both sides by our agricultural fields. The heavy dust pollution caused by the transportation has been damaging our crop production continuously,” the villagers said in their letter to the EAC last month.
“The paddy cultivated by us in the last year was not sold at any mandi or with any vendor as they rejected it because of its quality and blackened colour as a result of the coal dust. This has become a grave threat to our lives and livelihoods. The coal dust also causes respiratory and breathing issues for the residents of the villages along which transportation happens.”
A spokesperson for Coal India Limited, of which MCL is a subsidiary, said he was not in a position to comment on the opposition by locals. “We will get information and then respond,” the spokesperson said.
Virendra Pradhan of the Jan Shakti Vikas Parishad, which represents 45 villages, alleged that MCL had lied to the EAC that coal was being transported through a coal corridor.
“But there is no coal corridor, coal is transported on PWD (Public Works Department) roads through 45 villages….We feel choked because there is coal everywhere. People are not able to hear each other properly because of noise and our children have stopped going to anganwadis and schools because we fear they will be run over by trucks. We will continue our protests,” he added.
Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research think tank, said the approach to enforcing environmental regulations presented at least three areas of concern.
“First, expansions of the current scale are exempt from public hearings based on recent amendments made by the environment ministry. This has once again reduced the decision making to being a bilateral matter between a mining company and the central government,” she said
“Second, the EAC has allowed the expansion despite full knowledge that the non-compliance of environmental safeguards has resulted in massive pollution in the area which in turn has impacted health, food security and mobility of people living around the mining and transportation routes. Third, neither the ministry nor the project authorities have carried out a risk assessment of extending the impact footprint despite heavy and publicly reported opposition in the area,” she added.