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Fly Ash From Thermal Plant Covers Seppakkam, and Its Residents Lose Track of Time

Fly Ash From Thermal Plant Covers Seppakkam, and Its Residents Lose Track of Time

North Chennai Thermal Power Station, Ennore. Photo: Adarsh B. Pradeep

Chennai: Keliamma, an elderly person in Seppakkam village, near Ennore, in North Chennai, recalls how her father used to cultivate rice using water from the Kosasthalaiyar river, and how she used to scoop up the river water in her hands to quench her thirst.

“We had pure water and clean air back then. Now, we have fly ash and salt water,” she says, as plumes of white gas billow from the North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) in the background.

The lands of Seppakkam once had rice fields, salt pans, fresh air, mangroves and clean rivers with fish aplenty. They are now blanketed in a thick layer of fly ash. The groundwater is salty and laden with heavy metals. Acres upon acres of ash ponds have gobbled up the salt pans and crops.

Despite multiple orders by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to contain the pollution, the power plant, owned by the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO), continues to discharge fly ash, encroach on ecologically sensitive lands and emit toxic fumes with impunity.

The NCTPS lies 25 km to the north of Chennai city and was commissioned in 1994.

Powered by coal from Odisha and West Bengal, the plant generates waste products like fly ash, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

The fly ash is disposed of as a slurry. It is mixed with sea water and transported through a network of pipes to an ash pond barely 50 m from Seppakkam.

While the power plant has received multiple awards for “high productivity and input reduction,” government agencies have overlooked its detrimental social and economic impact.

Water issues

The NGT founded its order dated September 11, 2017, on the recommendations of an expert committee it had constituted. The committee was headed by Sultan Ahmed Ismail, director of the Ecoscience Research Foundation. It had found severe contamination in water samples taken from the village bore-wells, including heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and chromium, etc. – all potential carcinogens.

The committee also noted that the ash pond lacked an impervious lining. The NCTPS was and is required to have this lining as part of the environmental clearance for its second stage of operations. The lining is in the form of a plastic sheet placed beneath the ash pond, to prevent the slurry from percolating into the ground. It is absent even today, four years after the NCTPS was told to install it. Without it, the salt water and heavy metals in the slurry seep into the ground.

Mageshwari Nagendran, a resident of Seppakkam, fondly recollects the time when she could drink water directly from the wells. “Now, we get pipe water on alternate days. When I was young, our family never bought water. Now, we pay Rs 30 for a can of drinking water.”

The fly ash pond is bound by dykes that rise 6 m above its surrounding land. The dykes keep rain water from the hinterland draining into the creek. Similar dykes near the Ennore and Vallur thermal power stations create a contiguous dam-like structure that leaves the area permanently waterlogged.

Ela Muthu, a resident of Seppakkam, points to abandoned houses to show how the stagnating water has rendered parts of the village uninhabitable. “People left the village after the polluted water entered their homes and refused to recede,” he says.

The fly ash

According to the fly ash utilisation rules, power plants need to use up 100% of the fly ash they generate within a 300 km radius. However, the Ismail committee found many discrepancies.

According to the NCTPS records, there should be 6.11-8.11 million m3 of fly ash in the pond. However, a field survey revealed a volume of 18.12 million m3. The difference indicated that the NCTPS could be under reporting the quantity of fly ash it had dumped or utilised in construction activities.

TANGEDCO, in a note to the NGT, had submitted that a certain quantity of fly ash had ‘leaked’ – but the ‘real’ figure it quoted still only accounted for 2% of the discrepancy. The remaining 98%, the Ismail committee concluded, needed to be removed from the site.

To this day, this remains an unfinished task.

Yet another such task is to replace rusted pipes. According to Muthu, “The pipes were laid in the 1990s.”

“If an official comes to visit the area, the NCTPS people switch off the pipes so that the leaks are not visible, or they hammer in branches of trees or cover the pipes with polythene sheets to temporarily plug the leaks,” he adds.

The expert committee said that during its field visit, it spotted no major leaks. But now, at least five are visible. Senthil Kumar, an assistant executive engineer at the NCTPS and who is responsible for maintaining the pipes, refused to comment for this article.

One of the pipes carrying fly ash slurry leaks during operation. Photo: Shibimol K.G.

The committee also noted that the NCTPS didn’t have a response protocol in the event of a dyke breach or major pipe burst.

In its 2017 order, the NGT had criticised the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s (TNPCB) shoddy efforts to contain the fly ash leak. Environmentalists have also blamed the Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Management Authority (TNCZMA) for failing to prevent encroachments.

T. Rathi, an environmental engineer at the TNPCB office in Chennai, said many parties are involved in implementing a court order. “The TNPCB alone cannot be blamed for the lapses,” she continued. “We implement every court order within the time frame.”

When the NGT ordered that TNPCB officials responsible for the fly ash leak be punished, the board pushed back saying no one official could be punished because many were involved in the task.

R. Nagendran, a former NGT member, said that once the tribunal passes an order, it is up to the TNPCB to implement it, and that’s it. There is no mechanism to hold violators accountable if the authorities don’t perform their duties.

The TNCZMA defended itself on another tack entirely. When asked how ecologically sensitive areas like salt pans and mangroves could be converted into ash ponds, K.V. Giridhar, director of the department of environment, which regulates the TNCZMA, says, “This is a highly political and sensitive issue. It has national importance. I cannot pass any comment.”

Per Ravimaran Ramachandran, a local fisherman who has been fighting the cases at the NGT, that despite the ongoing cases, neither the authorities nor TANGEDCO seems compelled to address the issue.

“Under corporate social responsibility rules, the industries around the area give the fishers ice boxes, boat engines, etc. But the real issue of pollution has been left unaddressed.”

The fishers of nearby Nettukuppam village agree, and add that the “highly corrupt” local police don’t register their complaints either.

They recalled how policemen at the Ennore M5 police station had disparaged them when they tried to file a complaint on land encroachment.

According to M. Veerasamy, the head constable at M5, when the locals come with pollution complaints the police report them to the TNPCB, which is supposed to take action. He denies that there have been encroachment cases lodged at his station. He says these cases “come under the Minjur police station limits.” However, an official at the Minjur police station says there are no pollution-related cases in their jurisdiction either.

The fly ash issue doesn’t stop with the leaky pipes or dykes. The Ismail committee had said the NCTPS ought to splash water on the ash pond to prevent dry ash from being lifted into the air – yet another recommendation that remains on paper. The committee was also displeased with the way the ash was being transported.

The slurry is scooped up using excavators, loaded onto lorries and driven to utilisation points. The excavator operator determines the depth and quantity of fly ash removed and the lorries lack any kind of proper covering. As a result, dry ash flies into the air, where air currents move it to human settlements, where the ash triggers respiratory issues, skin problems and a fatal disease called silicosis (often misdiagnosed as tuberculosis) among villagers and the NCTPS workers alike.

Nurses at the primary health centre in Ennore confirmed that there are more than 50 patients currently diagnosed with tuberculosis and that, on an average, there are two to three positive cases every month. The nurses also said that they had diagnosed no cases of silicosis thus far.

According to T. Latha, a resident of Seppakkam, “Almost everyone has sinus problems. Children are taken to the hospital often and elders suffer from wheezing, cold, sneezing and skin problems.” She cleans her house every day, she says, and even then it is dusty with fly ash. “When we wash and keep our utensils in the sun or put the clothes up for drying, the ash settles on them.”

The TNPCB has a monitoring station at Kathivakkam in Ennore, just 4 km from the NCTPS and right next to the Ennore railway station. Air pollution data for the first 17 days of April 2021 showed five and six violations of PM10 and sulphur dioxide levels, respectively.

“It is nothing new. When you pass by the Ennore railway station, your eyes will burn and you will choke,” says M. Moorthy, a fisherman in Nettukuppam, which lies at the mouth of the Ennore Creek.

Selvan, another fisherman, says after the NCTPS was built, the fish catch dwindled. “Earlier, there were thousands of fish but not enough fishers to catch them. Now, there are thousands of fishers and no fish.”

The Ismail committee had analysed some fish from the creek and found that their bodies had levels of cadmium and lead far exceeding the maximum permitted by EU regulations (as did plants grown in the area). Apart from compromising the fish’s olfactory abilities and their ability to prey, these metals have been associated with kidney damage in humans.

“The fish caught here have an oily smell and no one buys them,” says Ramachandran.

Seppakkam’s residents say they were paid only Rs 35[footnote]1 cent = 435.6 sq. feet[/footnote] for each cent of land that the NCTPS purchased from them to build the ash pond. Many haven’t received the promised jobs. Moorthy says the fishermen of Nettukuppam and the neighbouring villages have complained about the issues many times and even organised a strike.

“But our issues are constantly sidelined.” Latha says. “I was eight months pregnant when I joined a day-long protest for the promised jobs. Nothing happened.”

Tamil Nadu will have a new chief minister from Friday, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M.K. Stalin. Will he change things around? The villagers are sceptical. “Elections are a gimmick,” Latha put it. “The candidates visit us and go back. Nothing changes.”

Adarsh B. Pradeep is a student at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. He tweets at @adarshbpradeep.

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