An opencast coal mine in Neyveli, Tamil Nadu, operated by NLC India. Photo: Amirtharaj Stephen.
The Indian public sector mining company NLC India Ltd. (formerly Neyveli Lignite Corporation) has come under fire for operating its coal mine without revalidating its environmental clearance. The company is currently operating three opencast mines – Mine-I, Mine-IA and Mine-II – in Neyveli, Tamil Nadu, with a total capacity of 28.5 million tonnes per annum (MTPA). It is linked to the NLCIL thermal power plant, which has a capacity of 3,390 MW with a 250-ME independent power producer.
Mine-II has a capacity of 15 MTPA and has allegedly been operating without revalidating its environmental clearance. This is a functional mine that started work in 1981 as a lignite opencast mine with a capacity of 4.7 MTPA. Subsequently, it expanded in stages to a 15-MTPA facility in 2010, with a mining area of 41.22 sq. km and project area of 71.94 sq. km. As on March 31, 2020, NLC India had mined 2,414.32 hectares.
The company had obtained an environment clearance for this mine on December 24, 2002. The government had issued the clearance under the environment impact assessment (EIA) notification 1994, and the Union coal ministry approved the mine closure plan for Mine-II on March 31, 2011.
According to a Union environment ministry notification (S.O. 1530(E), dated April 6, 2018), mining projects granted an environment clearance under the EIA Notification 1994 are required to revalidate the clearance. To comply with this order, NLC India was required to apply for a fresh environment clearance before October 2018. However, the company failed to submit its application before the deadline. This came to light after NLC India sent a letter to the environment ministry on December 17, 2020. In the letter, the company writes:
“NLCIL had inadvertently missed to note the notification and could not submit the application within the specified window period. It is kindly requested to consider the proposal and issue Terms of Reference for the Mine-II project for fresh EC under violation category.”
Experts said that this is a clear and punishable violation.
“As per EIA notification 2006, operating a mine without proper environment clearance is a violation,” M. Vetriselvan, a Chennai-based lawyer and a member of Poovulagin Nanbargal, a Tamil Nadu based environmental group, said. “It is extremely sad to see that most public-undertaking institutions like NLC don’t provide adequate attention to implementing environmental laws. Applying for clearance, renewing it and extending consent-to-operate are essential steps to be carried out by any industry. The public-undertaking companies have a more moral and constitutional mandate to execute the necessary provisions of law.”
He added that NLC India’s actions “should be treated as a punishable offence”.
An expert appraisal committee accepted NLC India’s proposal on February 4, 2021. Since the proposal had been filed under the ‘violation’ category, it had to be placed before an expert committee related to the EIA notification 2006. However, it was placed before an expert committee of the coal mining sector.
R. Sreedhar, convenor of the National Coal and Thermal Power gatherings, said NLC has been “expanding mindlessly when there is shrinking demand for the fuel.”
“It is exploiting its status as a PSU and violating all norms. You might have heard how over a lakh trees were cut during the COVID-19 crisis in Odisha’s Talabira Mine by NLC,” he told The Wire Science. “There are still unresolved issues of the community and environmental remediation, which NLC must urgently address rather than trying to subvert even the violation committee.”
For Mine-II, NLC India had obtained a consent to operate from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) September 26, 2019. One of the additional conditions had required the NLC to install an online continuous air quality monitoring station around the mining area. That is, NLC India had been operating its mine without such a monitoring station until it obtained the TNPCB’s consent.
“The most important emissions during coal-mining are particulate matter and heavy metals. These air pollutants affect human health, flora and fauna in and around coal-mining areas,” said Shwetha Narayanan, a Chennai-based environmental justice activist. “Not having an air quality monitor is also a violation of the Environment Protection Act 1986.”
NLC India’s director of mines had yet to respond to a detailed query sent by email. This article will be updated as and when we receive a reply.
Satheesh Lakshmanan is an independent journalist covering environmental issues in Tamil Nadu.