Rampal Electricity Plant and our Environmental Consciousness
A.K.M Wahiduzzaman and Mohammed Tawsif Salam for AlaloDulal
There is a rising energy demand in Bangladesh in proportion with the growth of its population. Given the near exponential growth of demand due to other factors like industrialization, we are now forced to explore non-government sources of energy from being reliant on government run power stations only. As many of the privately run power stations those we can propose are environment friendly and more efficient than the government run stations, some of the proposed or considered plans can have longstanding adverse effects on the environment and at the same time be less efficient. The proposed Rampal Coal-based Power Station is an example of the latter.
Rampal Power Station came in the paper for the first time when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India in 2010. A memorandum jointly signed by the two Prime Ministers contained proposal of power generation plant near the Sunderbans in Rampal, in light of which India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh’s Power Development Board (PDB) signed a treaty in 2012. The treaty proposes to establish two 660 megawatt units power plants in Rampal to produce 1,320 megawatt power. In the background, the land in Rampal was allocated on 27 December, 2010 without assessing any environmental aspects and threats.
Experts and environmentalists in Bangladesh began to stage protests and dialogues against the proposed power plant highlighting its high environmental risks. As the matter moved to the court, the High Court in Bangladesh ruled against the establishment of the plant without assessing environmental aspects. In response of the High Court ruling, the Department of Environment (DoE) rushed to publish an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report and declared the proposed plant as ‘environment friendly’. Following their declaration, the DoE made its EIA open to the public and asked for feedback online, whereas the rule is to publish the report for feedback at first and then finalize it to either approve or disapprove the plant in subject. Finally based on this undue proceeding, the two governments of Bangladesh and India on 20 April, 2013 signed the treaty to build the Rampal power plant. The framework agreed in the treaty includes about joint initiative, implementation and purchase.
It has to be mentioned in here that NTPC proposed a similar power plant for the state of Chhattisgarh to produce the same amount, 1,320 megawatt, of electricity. The proposal was termed as ‘highly threatening to environment’ by the Green Panel of the India’s ministry of environment and eventually disapproved. The Green Panel published their EIA report where the disapproval was explained and justified. Here we can raise the question that how a proposal disapproved by the Indian environmental regulators in grounds of affecting their environment gets approval by the Bangladeshi authorities when it comes at affecting the environment of Bangladesh?
It is understandable that EIA report as well as the approval given by the Bangladeshi authorities did not go by due processes, which becomes clearer if we compare it with one given by its Indian counterpart over the proposed plan for Chhattisgarh. The comparison shows inconsistencies in environmental risk assessments of the two authorities, which are as follows-
Impact Distance from the Sunderbans
EIA report by Bangladesh DoE states that a radius of 10 kilometres from the Sunderbans is considered the Environmentally Critical Area (ECA) and the proposed spot for the plant is 14 kilometres away from the forest, making the plant not risky as it is 4 kilometres away from the Sunderbans’ ECA. But our findings through Geographical Information System (GIS) software exhibit that this distance is between 9 and 13 kilometres.
[Photo 2: Location map of Rampal Coal Based Thermal Electricity Plant showing distance from Sundarbans]
According to India’s ‘Wild Life Protection Act 1972’, it is prohibited to build a power generation plant with wildlife reservations, national parks and forestry within its 15 kilometres radius. This means that the power plant that the Indian NTPC has proposed to build near the Sunderbans, a Bangladeshi forestry, could be never built in India according to their law if it were an Indian forestry. In addition, no international standard would approve establishment of a coal-based power plant so close to a reserved forestry as the Rampal plant is proposed.
Human Habitation, Agriculture and Fisheries near Plant
There are significant inconsistencies in the proposition’s mention about land requirement for the project. The proposed power plant for the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which was about to produce 1,320 megawatt of electricity, was set to require 792 acres of land which had to be acquired by the government prior to the plant’s construction. In the case of Rampal plant, which is too set to produce 1,320 megawatt of electricity, is set to force the government of Bangladesh to acquire 1,834 acres of land, significantly consisting of farming lands, fisheries and habitations of the population of dependent on the mentioned. Over 95 per cent of the allocated land is capable of being harvested thrice a year that every year produced 1,285 tonnes of rice and 561.41 metric tonnes of fish. Over 8,000 families are permanent residents of the allocated land and among them 7,500 families live on the mentioned farming and fisheries. The Rampal plant is going to force these families off their homes and incomes.
Even according to the EIA report of Bangladesh DoE, the 75 per cent of the 10 km area of impact is used for firming that produces 62,353 tonnes of rice and 140,461 tonnes of other crops every year. As the rivers and canals of the area of impact are connected with the mangrove forest, they produce 5,218.66 metric tonnes of fishes every year. Once the plant is established, the entire area of impact is going to be unsuitable for firming, jeopardizing the significant amount of production of crops and fishes.
[Photo 3: Impact area of the proposed power plant]
At this point we notice severe self-contradiction in the EIA report by Bangladesh DoE. The report states that if well managed, the plant will not affect agriculture and livelihoods within the radius of 10 kilometres. At the same time the report articulates that activities like site construction, dredging, discharge of chemicals due to increased maritime transports etc. will severely affect the adjacent rivers, canals and agriculture, adding to high causative likeliness of landslide in the area.
Affects at the Development Stage of Infrastructure
The EIA report by the Bangladesh DoE lists a number of damages those it describes to be caused at the development stage of the power plant infrastructure. They are- increased maritime transports, undue chemical discharges from the naval vehicles, sound and light pollution etc., which will potentially disturb the natural habitats of the local rivers and canals. It will hamper the ecosystem which comprises of Royal Bengal Tigers, deer, dolphins and the forestry.
Again, deforestation and dredging that would be done to facilitate the increased transportation will also harm the local environment.
Impact of the Operation Coal-based Power Plant
According to the EIA report, 4.72 million tonnes of coal will be burnt to produce the estimated 1,320 megawatt of electricity at the proposed Rampal power plant. According to Avogadro’s law, a tonne of burnt coal will produce 2.86 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Therefore, at a load factor of 80 per cent, the plant will produce 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Though the EIA report itself mentions that 7.9 million tonnes from it will be added to fly ash. Taking the report into account, it becomes obvious that at least 7.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be produced from the plant, which is too highly risky and environmentally threatening.
In addition to carbon dioxide, the plant will release 142 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 85 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide every day, amounting at 51,830 tonnes and 31,025 tonnes respectively in a year. As a result, the natural density of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the Sunderbans will rise at many folds, which will trigger the eventual destruction of the forest.
One of the most shocking revelations about the DoE’s EIA report is found at this point, as the report categorizes the Sunderbans as a residential area and village! Why? According to the Environment Preservation Act 1997 of Bangladesh, the estimated degrees of the gas-release would be enough to disapprove a proposed power plant like Rampal if it takes place adjacent to an environmentally sensitive area, which the Sunderbans rightfully is. But by categorizing it wrongfully and deliberately as ‘residential area and village’, the DoE evaded the coverage of the 1997 act.
Are really the Sunderbans a residential area and villages? Should not we question that why DoE deliberately did this categorization, instead of putting it under the category of ‘environmentally sensitive area’?
The answer to this question is, according to the Environment Preservation Act 1997, it is illegal to artificially raise the amount of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide above 30 microgram per cubic metre of air in and around an environmentally sensitive area. According to the EIA report by Bangladesh Department of Environment, this amount in and around the area of the power plant upon completion would be 54 microgram, which is nearly two-fold of what law approves. This means, if the Sunderbans is categorized as an ‘environmentally sensitive area’ which it rightfully is, the authority cannot validate the approval of the Rampal power plant. This precisely why the DoE categorized the Sunderbans as ‘residential area and village’, where according to the law the maximum approvable level is 80 microgram. This has been precisely an act of fraudulence by the DoE just to deceive the judiciary for justifying its approval of the power plant.
Again, the EIA states that the plant, for rotation of turbines and to use as a coolant, would require extracting 9,150 cubic metre of water per hour from the Passur River adjacent to the Sunderbans and would release back 5,150 cubic metre of water, implying that the ultimate extraction of water from the river would be 4,000 cubic metre per hour. This loss of water would impact the salinity, flow, tidal patterns, habitats and ecosystem of the river. Surprisingly this entire issue is not covered by the EIA report.
Here at this point, we discover another evasion by the DoE at the EIA report. The report states that the 4,000 cubic metres per hour of water is an insignificant figure because it is only a per cent of the river’s water flow during the dry season. The evasion in this case is- this data of ‘1 per cent’ is taken from the reading of 2005. Over the period of last eight years, the water flow of the Pashur River has significantly gone down, notably due to newly constructed dams between the river and her source in India during that period. At the same time, demand of water has gone up by both household and industrial means in these eight years. The DoE is found to completely disregard these analyses in its EIA report which could stringently clarify that the Rampal plant is not an environmentally approvable project.
The most shocking revelation about the EIA report in this issue is, the DoE completely disregarded the matter of ‘zero discharge’ of water, which is relevant following extraction from the river. It is scientifically established that the discharged water from a coal power plant is chemically hazardous. This is why the coal based power plants follow the policy of ‘zero discharge’. The Indian NTPC, which in collaboration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart agreed with the Bangladeshi PDB in discharging 4,000 cubic metres of water, in fact upheld the policy of ‘zero discharge’ in their own EIA report back in India when the same power plant was under consideration for the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which was still binned. It is utterly unfortunate that what was being considered by the authorities as ‘hazardous’ for India, has been not only ignorantly disregarded for Bangladesh, rather has been labelled ‘environmentally okay’ by the Bangladeshi authorities. Even the fact that the discharged 5,150 cubic metres of water will raise the water temperature of the Pashur river, resulting at a range of adverse effects, has been completely disregarded in the DoE’s EIA report.
Another vital issue that the EIA report disregards is the change in the atmospheric temperature as result of the power plant. The report reads that temperature of the plant’s gaseous discharge, released in the atmosphere from a 275-metre high chimney, will be 125 degree Celsius. The report simply “hopes” that the discharge will not cause a rise in the local atmospheric temperature, which is rather found to be ridiculous because it is by every means understandable that such discharge would indeed raise the surrounding atmospheric temperature.
The most hazardous waste of the Rampal power plant will be two types of ash. As result of burning 4.72 million tonnes of coal per year, 750,000 tonnes of fly ash and 200,000 tonnes of bottom ash will be produced. These wastes, comprising of fly ash, bottom ash and liquid ash, are extremely hazardous. They contain hazardous and radioactive metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, barium, cadmium, chromium, selenium and radium. The EIA report again becomes evasive by stating that the fly ash will be filtered before discharging through the chimney, and “some ash” “may” release to the atmosphere. The report disregards the amount of this “some ash”. How much is this “some”? Even if we take it a per cent a year, 7,500 tonnes of fly ash will be released in and around the Sunderbans by the Rampal plant, which would not only fatally affect the forest, but also cause a range of lung diseases including pneumonia to the people living nearby.
About managing the waste, the EIA report states that the fly ash “could” be used in cement factories and brickfields. Neither the report has an explanation of this statement, nor does the reality reflect in this view of the report. Taking Barapukuria as an example, it produces more than 300 metric tons of fly ash in one day, none of which has been ever used in cement factories and brickfields. Rather they are found dumped in surrounding locations which is spirally affecting the environment. As the EIA report’s ignorance about this issue reflects government’s lack of clarity and planning, the rightful assumptions are that the Rampal plant too would see the same fate.
The most shocking part of the EIA report’s waste management statements is that, even after categorizing the waste as “hazardous”, the report states about a 1,414 acres of landfill by these wastes, which leaves us completely bewildered that how a “Department of Environment” can devise a process like that!
In addition, operations of a coal based power plant comprise of turbine rotations, generators, compressors, pumps, cooling towers and transportations and manoeuvring of heavy loads and machineries. All the mentioned are active reasons of extensive sound pollution and given the location of the plant which is near a reserved forest containing a preserved wildlife, there is going to multiplying impacts of sound pollution. The EIA report states about 50db limit during the day and 40db limit during night, but rules out any “sound pollution”, which it states would be prevented by the plant’s “green boundary”, meaning an artificial boundary made of trees around the plant. The report unfortunately fails to explain how does the DoE expect that the trees to grow big enough to prevent sound pollution from the very first day of the plant’s operations.
Pollution Caused by Transportation of Coal
Another major threat of Rampal for the surrounding environment of the Sunderbans is the transportation of the vast amount of coal to the plant area from outside. It is mentioned that 4.72 million tonnes of imported coal will be transported to the Sunderbans’ Akram Point using large ships. From there, lighterages will ship the coal to the plant.
According to this plan, large ships will sail to the Akram Point, which is 30 kilometres deep into the Sunderbans, 59 times a year. The rest of the way to the plant, spanning 67 kilometres, will be sailed by a number of lighterages 236 times a year.
[Photo 4: Coal Transportation and handling for Rampal Project]
In this way, even according to the so far found evasive EIA report, the transportation of coal will affect the environment from three aspects. First, discharge of coal, dirt, fuel and other chemicals from the frequently sailing large and small ships will heavily contaminate the adjacent sea, rivers and the coast. Second, at Akram Point, where the transfer from the large ships to the small lighterages will take place, discharge of coal wastes to the river water will cause contamination. Third, extensively frequent maritime transportation throughout the Pashur river will damage its banks, adding to the sound and light pollutions caused by the ships those would hamper the ecosystem and the wildlife.
Apart from extensive environmental drawbacks, the proposed Rampal plant is financially infeasible. 15 per cent of the costs will bore by PDB, 15 per cent will be bore by the Indian NTPC and bank loans would cover the rest. The produced electricity will be entirely purchased by the PDB, and the profit after PDB’s purchasing will be split between PDB and NTPC equally. Here, coal price has been set to be the basis of the power price. According to this, the agreement already declares purchase of coal at a price of $145, which would force PDB to buy the produce power at a price of not less than Tk.8.85. If we benchmark this price with PDB’s already underway domestic coal based power deals- the prices of proposed plants in Dhaka’s Maowa, Chittagong’s Anwara and Khulna’s Labanchara are Tk.4, Tk.3.8 and Tk.3.8 respectively. The price for the proposed Rampal plant is here found to be two-fold of the benchmarked.
The only way to curb the direct public impact of this high price is government subsidies. This eventually means that Bangladesh is eventually going to make losses from Rampal and the only involved party opportune to make profits from this project is the Indian NTPC. So, even if they disregard the environmental issues, it was an imperative for the DoE to evaluate the profitability of the project and discover its infeasibility.
In Search of Alternative Energy
We cannot disagree that the demand of energy is spiralling in proportion to the paces of industrialisation and population growth. At the circumstance, it is imperative that before going for environmentally risky projects we must consider the alternative sources. Surprisingly most of our power stations in Bangladesh generate thermal power. The fundamental idea of these stations is to use gas-consuming steam turbines which generate electricity by rotating. These stations consume gas of average Tk.1.80 to Tk.3.28 per unit with a dabble folded total costs . So eventually the fail to generate power profitably.
On other hand, the per unit gas consumption is only Tk. 0.7 and the total cost is Tk.1.75 if we consider smaller power stations comprising of 4 megawatt gas generators. The few existing power stations in Bangladesh those generate power in this way sell to the PDB at a cost of Tk.3.26 per unit and still make profit. At the circumstance, replacing existing thermal power plants with the mentioned gas generator-based plants can be a mean to shift toward a more profitable power generation approach. In addition to profit and opposed to high maintenance cost of the thermal plants, the gas generators are often handy to repair if broke and even much feasible to replace, without any of these causing any major disruption to the whole process.
[Photo 5: Tidal waves at the Sandweep Channel according to the International Marine Electronic Chart]
Another attractive and environmentally safe way can be the exploitation of the tidal waves of the Bay of Bengal to general power. Australia already has tidal power plants those bank on only 2 nautical miles per hour of tidal waves, whereas it is more than 2 nautical miles at all points in the Bay of Bengal. Even according to the International Marine Electronic Chart, there are 5.5 nautical mile per hour tidal waves at the Sandweep Channel. The Sandweep Channel alone can assure us nearly 300 megawatt of power if we properly utilize the waves. The other spots where such initiatives can be lucratively taken are Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar.
It is beyond debates that we should desperately look for newer and content sources of energy to support the pace of the country’s progressive and sustainable growth. But the Sunderbans is too a high price to pay for it, both environmentally and economically. Moreover, the pursuant organisation lacks in having an environmental go-ahead from the authorities. If we touch on coal-based power plants at some points, our country contains a handful of other locations those are environmentally more viable and suitable, like- Shariatpur, Madaripur, Barisal, Patuakhali and Munshiganj. But we cannot afford to destroy the Sunderbans. The only way to save the wildlife and forestry of the Sunderbans right now is to drop the proposed Rampal coal-based power plant.