Featured image: A vessel carrying fly ash near Kakdwip in West Bengal. Photo: Namrata Acharya/Mongabay
Earlier this year, on April 9, when a ship full of fly ash collapsed in river Hooghly near Kulpi in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas area, a cloud of grey dust enveloped the nearby village of Tangrachar.
For days, the nauseating smell of carbon remained infused in the air, said Bappa Dulai, a fisherman in the area. It took about ten days to clear the mound of ash floating on the river, but the shipwreck became a permanent fixture. A pool of fuel and coal dust formed at the bottom of the wreck kept polluting the water, killing fish and other aquatic creatures, said Dulai.
Several fishermen lost their fishing nets, as they got entangled in the wreckage. On the same day, barely 30 kilometres apart, another ship carrying fly ash collapsed at Kachuberia, a ferry terminal in Sagar Island in the same district.
Both Kachuberia and Kulpi fall in the Sundarbans, a part of the world’s largest delta formed by the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra in the Bay of Bengal region. In 2020, according to a report, five ships carrying fly ash containers to Bangladesh collapsed in the region. In the last two years, the total number stands at eight.
Fly ash is a highly toxic substance known for causing health and environmental problems. It can contain lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and uranium, according to the Canada-based University of Calgary. When fly ash containers tumble in water bodies they contaminate aquaculture and may leach into landmasses, leading to toxicity of agricultural land and drinking water.
This toxic substance, however, is a big item of trade between India and Bangladesh.
New waterways and rising export
Fly ash is a byproduct of pulverised coal or coal dust in power generating plants and is being increasingly used as a substitute for cement in making bricks.
But there are limits to fly ash usage because, in concrete structures, not more than 30 percent of cement can be substituted by fly ash.
In India, the disposal of fly ash is a serious issue as more than 20% of fly ash generated in the country remains unutilised, according to data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). Every year, India exports three Million Tons (MT) of fly ash to Bangladesh, where it is used in cement factories.
In May 2020, India signed a treaty with Bangladesh, which would further boost the trade of fly ash between the two countries. Under this, the number of Indo Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) routes, or the permitted water routes between the two countries increased from eight to 10.
About 97 percent of waterway traffic from India and Bangladesh is for fly ash transportation, according to data from the Federation of Indian Export Organisation (FIEO). Between 2017-18 and 2019-20, there was about a 27% increase in cargo traffic from India to Bangladesh via water route, from 3.09 million MT in 2017-18 to nearly four million MT in 2019-20.
West Bengal, which has a substantial number of thermal power plants, is the second-largest producer of fly ash in the country. It produced nearly 15 million tons of the total ash produced in the first half of 2019-20, according to data from CEA.
“India wants to dump its fly ash in Bangladesh, and this is clearly environmental racism. The opening up of more routes would mean increased traffic. Its transportation from India to Bangladesh is a big concern because of the fragile ecosystem of the Sundarbans,” Sharif Jamil, Buriganga Riverkeeper and general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), an organisation involved in environmental conservation, told Mongabay-India.
Shweta Narayan, coordinator of Healthy Energy Initiative, a global collaboration of health professionals, organisations, and researchers for clean energy, said “India or the global south is the recipient of toxic waste from the global north” and “we are continuing that behaviour by dumping our waste to countries that are smaller or lesser influential than us.”
“Fly ash is a very dangerous substance that should not be transported anywhere. Any kind of spill can be lethal for the environment. No amount of checks and balances will stop the spillage of this highly toxic material. We don’t even know what kind of lasting impact it will have. The aquatic ecosystem might get permanently damaged because of these types of toxic chemicals,” Narayan told Mongabay-India.
Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, an association of fishermen, recently moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT) demanding a stop to cargo ship navigation through the ecologically sensitive Sundarbans.
Poor implementations of regulations governing fly ash
Most of the time, fly ash vessels are overloaded, and few precautionary measures are taken to avoid spills, which often go unreported. There are little regulations governing the safe handling of the toxic ash in India and even the current regulations are not followed properly.
The cause of recurrent accidents in the region is the use of old vessels for transporting the ash, said Pradip Chatterjee, who is the national convener of the National Platform for Small Scale Fishworkers.
“The way fly ash is loaded and unloaded is not safe. It causes fly ash spills, which often don’t get reported. In addition, most of the vessels that ply from India to Bangladesh are not seaworthy, leading to recurrent accidents. All this is damaging the fragile ecosystem of the Sundarbans, as well as the livelihood of a large number of people,” Chatterjee told Mongabay-India.
“We are talking about old barges with excess weight. It is like trying your luck. How many investigations were ordered? What is the clean up take up? What are the steps taken? How are they making fly ash transportation safe? Where are the regulatory oversights?” said Narayan.
The West Bengal Pollution Control Board spokesperson refused to comment on the issue.
In 2000, fly ash was reclassified from being a hazardous waste material to a waste material, leading to relaxation of norms governing its transportation.
“I don’t think fly ash movement is covered under any legislation, as it is not termed as hazardous waste. If it is not transported safely, there are high chances of these toxic materials leeching-out,” Ravi Agarwal, who is director of Toxics Link, a non-government organisation working in the field of environment, told Mongabay-India.
In 2014, the government of India had made coal washing mandatory for supply to all thermal units beyond 500 kilometres from the coal mine. In May this year, the government dropped the clause of mandatorily washing coal for supply to thermal power plants.
“That is going to create a bigger problem because coal washing helps in reducing ash content. Fly ash utilisation is much lesser than the amount of generation. Most power stations generate more fly ash than they can dispose. For dumping ash they need to buy more land. As a result, more and more land is being used for dumping ash, which is not environment friendly nor a good use of land,” Partha Bhattacharya, former chairman & managing director of Coal India Limited, told Mongabay-India.
In India, an area of 65000 acres of land is being occupied by ash ponds, according to the Journal of Materials and Environmental Science.
Shrinking livelihoods due to fly ash mismanagement
Increased water pollution in the Sundarban region is evident from falling fish production.
“In the last ten years, the average fish catch has fallen by 50-70%,” said Anshuman Midda, a fisherman from West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district.
“Fish production has nosedived. Every year it is falling in the region. Compared to last year, 50 percent of the trawlers are not plying this year because there are no fish in the Sundarban region. In the next one-month further 25 percent of the trawlers will stop plying. Even in monsoon season, the production is low,” Bijon Maity, secretary of the West Bengal United Fishermen Association said.
A coal economy with poor fly ash management
Over the years, India’s dependence on coal has gone up and so has the production of fly ash. India has the world’s fourth-largest coal reserve and the second-largest producer of coal, with more than 50% of its demand for electricity being met by coal-based thermal power plants.
It is only expected to go up over the next few years. The government recently launched the auction process of 41 new coal blocks for commercial mining. The government has taken the decision to spend Rs 50,000 crore (Rs. 500 billion) on creating infrastructures for coal extraction and transportation.
Meanwhile, even as utilisation of fly ash has increased from about 69% to 78% in 2018-19 to 2019-20, the amount of ash generation has also gone up drastically.
India’s fly ash production increased from 93.26 million tonnes in the first half of 2018-19 to 129.09 million tonnes in the first half of 2019-20. In 2018-19, India generated 217.04 million tons of fly ash. The utilisation of 78% fly ash means nearly 48 million tonnes of the ash had to be dumped last year.
The central government is yet to come up with a concrete plan to utilise fly ash with the further opening up of new mines. In India, ash is offered for free to cement manufacturers while some power plants even pay for someone accepting it, indicating a lack of market for its use. A major chunk of the ash, about 28% of it, is utilised in the cement sector.
“Power plants in India produce about 600,000 tonnes of fly ash per day or 219 million metric tonnes of fly ash per year. This is equal to India’s total cement consumption in a year. For cement production, with 650 kilograms of clinkers, one cannot mix more than 350 kilograms of fly ash. There is a huge oversupply. Fly ash is generally free of cost. However, transportation cost is high,” said Sajjan Bhajanka, the Chairman and Managing Director of Star Cement Limited.
“Except for a few properties, fly ash is just like cement. The consumption of fly ash is limited, and its availability is surplus. It is also an environmental problem. Many power plants in India pay cement companies to remove fly ash,” said Bhajanka.
However, critics feel India has not done enough to build a market for fly ash bricks, which is one of its most viable uses.
“Two things need to happen: On the supply side, fly ash generation needs to be reduced and that can happen only when coal is washed. All efforts must be used to increase demand. Incentives which power stations provide for fly ash disposal, that needs to be reviewed and relooked,” Partha Bhattacharya said.
While Ravi Agarwal said “fly ash bricks are only a partial success in India” as “there is no confidence among people in using fly ash bricks.”
“Normal bricks are tried and tested. So we need to create a market for fly ash bricks. India has not done enough to build that market,” he said.
While the toxic trade of ash is on a rise, Bappa Dulai scoffs when asked about health issues he faced due to the continued stench of carbon that stayed for days after the last fly ash accident.
“We are used to this stench. Is anyone even bothered about our health?” he asked.