Herald: Battle against coal pollution –Is it done and dusted?
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Battle against coal pollution –Is it done and dusted?

13 Jan 2018 06:52am IST

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13 Jan 2018 06:52am IST

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Residents of Vasco have been bearing the pollution for many years with some protests now and then; The real fight against coal pollution started last year with hundreds of people from all over Goa protesting against it at Tilak Maidan which got the attention of authorities concerned. SHWETA KAMAT has the details of how the issue even reached the Monsoon Assembly session

It all started in April 2017, when hundreds of people from various parts of the State, cutting across caste, religion, age and political affiliation gathered at Tilak Maidan to unanimously oppose the river dredging and expansion of coal handling berth of Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) by the JSW South West Port Limited (SWPL) - the move which is an alleged attempt to convert Vasco town into a COAL HUB. The SWPL, the largest coal handler at MPT, has proposed doubling of its coal handling facility along with other cargo at Berth Number 5A and 6A by 2019-20.

The massive public protest followed by series of media reports exposed how the existing coal handling activities has led to major pollution and health hazard in the Vasco city, especially areas surrounding the port. It was at that point the Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) came in action and acted stringently against the SWPL for gross violation of environmental norms and various conditions stipulated by the Board for undertaking operations.

The initial action resumed from August 2017, with pollution authority writing to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) against berth expansion. 

But the year 2018 started on a good note for Vascokars, as the GSPCB in tough action revoked the Consent to Operate granted to SWPL for handling 4.125 million tonnes of coal at berth number 5A and 6A, thereby suspending all the coal handling activities with immediate effect. The order dated January 9, is however, now being challenged before the High Court by SWPL (managed to get interim relief) - who were given enough time period to mitigate pollution level and also to put across its stand for excess coal handling.

“We have taken necessary action following all the legal procedures. SWPL failed to establish or counter the claim of excess coal handling and also that the same led to pollution,” GSPCB member secretary Levinson Martins told HERALD.

SWPL has projected to handle 20 million tonnes of coal traffic by 2027-29, with annual traffic increase from 2019-20. As per the Environment Impact Assessment report, coal and iron ore comprises almost 86 per cent of the proposed expansion in cargo handling as SWPL intends to increase from existing 6.5 million tonnes to 13 million tonnes, while the balance two million tonnes is steel.

SWPL has projected 15 million tonnes coal traffic in 2019-20, 16 million tonnes in 2021-23, 18 million tonnes in 2024-26 and 20 million tonnes in 2027-29.

If one remembers, the first action against the SWPL came in February 2016, when the GSPCB chaired by then chairman Jose Manuel Noronha directed reduction in coal handling facility by 25 per cent for a period from February to April, 2016, after it was found handling excess coal. The permissible handling capacity of SWPL was 5.5 million tonnes for that financial year; however, it handled 9.929 million tonnes of coal that is Excess of 4.429 million tonnes.

The Consent to Operate granted in 2012 for a period of five years had allowed 5.5 million tonnes of coal cargo to be handled at the berth number 5A and 6A.

Post April 2017 protest, the GSPCB was bound to undertake ambient air quality study of the Vasco town, wherein it was found that the PM10 exceeds the permissible limit by more than 200 per cent with Board in its annual report declaring MPT jurisdiction as the most polluted area in the State.

Accordingly, when SWPL applied for renewal of Consent to Operate in May 2017, the GSPCB granted Consent with a condition in reduction of coal handling cargo by 25 per cent that is from 5.5 million tonnes to 4.125 million tonnes. The Consent was issued on July 21, 2017.

The monsoon session of the State Legislative Assembly held in July-August 2017 saw heated debate and chaos on the issue, with opposition as well ruling demanding ‘NO COAL EXPANSION’. Bowing to the pressure, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that Government will not allow expansion of coal handling facilities and will also write to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest not to grant permission till the coal pollution is brought under control.

On July 11 and 12, 2017, GSPCB wrote to the MOEF Regional Officer placing on record the public opposition to the project and also bringing to notice the high pollution. It suggested that the Particulate Source Apportionment study of air quality in Vasco, through Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay is must before considering the coal expansion project proposed by SWPL at MPT for environment clearance. 

The letter was placed before the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which recommends projects for environmental clearances to Ministry, during its meeting held in October 2017, who accordingly deferred the decision to grant clearance.

Soon after the letter, the Board observed that the SWPL and MPT are involved in excess coal handling for the year 2012-13, 2014-15 and 2015-16 and accordingly in October 2017, pollution authority filed a criminal complaint against the duo before the JMFC Vasco under section 200 CrPC read with section 43 of the Air Act for violating the provisions of section 21 (5) (V) and 31 (a) (i) punishable under section 37 (i) read with section (39) of the Air Act.

The seriousness of the issue was felt by the GSPCB, who continued their investigation. The Board further observed that even for the financial year 2016-17, SWPL handled excess coal. The firm handled 10.112 million tonnes of coal as against the permissible limit of 5.5 million tons.

Accordingly on December 1, 2017 a show cause notice was slapped on SWPL seeking their reply within six days.

Finding itself in trouble, SWPL challenged the show cause notice before the High Court granting additional time to reply. Following Court directives, the Board granted additional two-week time for written submission and also called for personal hearing on January 8, 2018.

SWPL, in its written submission failed to establish that it did not handle excess coal. Even during the personal hearing, the firm was silent on the very fact, while it countered the pollution issue stating that pollution in Vasco town is “not exceptionally different from other cities of the State”.

While the Board was initiating the action, what came as surprise to everyone was EAC of MOEF during its meeting held on December 15, 2017 approved and recommended the berth expansion project for EC. 

However, notwithstanding the same, GSPCB went ahead and revoked the consent granted to SWPL and suspend all its coal handling activities from January 9 onwards. The SWPL challenged the order before High Court, who granted interim relief to the unit.
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