An Adani-operated coal mine in the Indian state of Odisha has failed to comply with environmental regulations, according to a government panel of experts. Measures to contain emissions of coal dust at the mine have been grossly inadequate, and huge trucks have spread the coal dust even further. A three-year time limit on the use of these trucks on local roads has passed. Residents are suffering from the health impacts caused by coal dust and other pollutants, but the central government looks set to give the mine the green light to keep on trucking for another four years.
A mine excavating coal from the Talabira 2 and 3 blocks in Odisha belongs to the public-sector NLC India Limited (‘NLC’) and straddles the districts of Sambalpur and Jharsuguda. An Adani Group subsidiary, Talabira (Odisha) Mining Private Limited, is the Mine Developer and Operator (‘the contractor’) and therefore runs the mine.
Excavated coal is transported using dumpers, trucks and lorries along a 12-km ‘coal transfer road’ that connects the mine with the national highway. Apart from causing pollution, this heavy truck traffic causes a dangerous bottleneck of vehicles at the highway junction.
Local communities complain that trucking the coal from the Talabira mine has, besides degrading vegetation and air quality, also caused adverse health impacts.
‘Air pollution in the region is caused mostly by fugitive dust from the pit of the mining project and from trucks and dumpers carrying coal on the road,’ said Dilip Sahu, a resident of Patrapalli village in the Talabira area.
‘Lots of dumpers and lorries park right on the highway where it meets the coal transfer road. Trucks line up for long distances in between the villages of Lapanga and Thelkoloi on the highway, worsening pollution.’
Local communities have recently held demonstrations against the practice of trucking the coal along local roads due to accidents caused by vehicles transporting coal.
‘These heavy vehicles cause traffic jams,’ said Ganesh Rout, another resident of Patrapalli village.
‘Very often the vehicles drive on the wrong side of the road. Many vehicles are also parked on the wrong side of the highway. Accidents have taken place. Hundreds of young men from local villages use bicycles to travel to nearby factories in which they work. The danger of road accidents caused by erratically driven coal-laden trucks is a constant menace.’
A condition on the mine’s environmental approval in October 2018 was that trucking of coal on the roads was to continue for only three years. However, moves are afoot to extend it until 2027.
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Adani's failure to implement environmental controls
The Adani company running the mine handles almost all the mining operations at Talabira 2 & 3, including pollution-control measures such as sprinkling water along the coal-transfer road and other areas near the mining project to control pollution caused by fugitive dust from the mine.
The project’s environmental impacts are monitored by a panel of experts, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which evaluates impacts of industrial projects for the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change. In a meeting held on 14 March 2023, the EAC found that major pollution-control systems, including mist sprinklers and fogging equipment, were yet to be installed at the Talabira 2 & 3 mine. Similarly, development of greenery, as mandated in the environmental clearance letter, had yet to occur. The minutes of the meeting stated:
‘Several mandatory conditions have not been complied [with] such as implementation of in-pit belt conveyor with mist sprinklers, deploying mechanized sweeping machine, fogging arrangement, vertical greenery etc.’
As well as itemising Adani’s inadequacies in dealing with pollutants at the mine itself, the EAC also evaluated a proposal by the mine to extend the use of trucks on the roads for transporting coal until March 2027. The committee’s minutes say:
‘The committee also noted that [the project proponent] in its own submission at the time of taking [environmental approval], confirmed that interim transportation for 3 years up to a distance of 12 km shall be required to complete the works of belt conveyor up to silo and from silo through railway to Power Plant. The project proponent failed to comply [with this] major condition, after more than 4 years, which should have been completed in 3 years. Moreover, the project proponent did not apprise about the preparedness of the plan for implementation of said mechanized system.’
Having failed to meet its undertaking to phase out road transport by 2022, NLC has now sought an extension to this deadline to 2027. Its application seeks permission for:
‘… interim road transportation up to 31.03.2027 … i.e. until commissioning of Silo conveying system and railway siding, up to a distance of 12km is proposed by road through covered tippers/dumpers.’
In considering this application, the EAC took strong exception to the proposal that only the preamble be amended without any request for amending the ‘specific condition’. The minutes state:
‘On enquiry, the project proponent did not submit the proper justification or transportation study to reduce the pollution load. Subsequently committee after examination noted that there are certain major [environmental approval] conditions which have not been complied [with] and the same should be complied [with] first rather seeking amendment on preamble part. Therefore, the Committee emerged that [the proponent] has selectively chosen the amendment only in the preamble part and not in the specific condition of EC.’
It is speculated that the proponent took this route in order to avoid further scrutiny of its performance in complying with the conditions applied at the time of the project’s approval in 2018.
The proponent has attempted to justify its proposal to continue using trucks on the roads by referring to the inordinate delay in the commissioning of a railway siding associated with the pithead power plant that was proposed when the mine was approved but has yet to eventuate.
The Talabira coal mine was supposed to supply coal to a proposed 3200 MW coal-power plant to be developed by NLC near the pithead of the mine. Transport of coal from the mine to NLC’s Talabira power plant was to take place using a closed conveyor-belt system from the coal depot. Neither the power plant nor the conveyor-belt system has materialized.
A senior official of NLC India Limited told this correspondent that owing to the delay in the construction of the pithead power plant, coal from Talabira is being sold on the open market.
‘The process of acquiring land for the pithead power plant is underway,’ the official said. ‘Work is also underway to select a contractor for the power plant’s construction. Coal will be supplied to the pithead plant once [the power plant] is commissioned.
‘After meeting end-use requirements, we sold around 15 million tonnes of coal from the pithead to other users during the financial year 2022-23.’
Coal from the Talabira mine was also proposed to supply a 1000 MW coal-power plant in the port city of Thoothukudi in the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu. The Thoothukudi power plant, run by NLC Tamil Nadu Power Limited (NTPL), is a subsidiary company of NLC India Limited formed through a partnership with the Tamil Nadu government-owned electricity company, Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited. Transport of coal from the mine to Thoothukudi was to occur using a proposed railway network. But like the pithead power plant and conveyor belt, this railway has not been built.
As a result, the proposal submitted to the ministry contained an amendment to add the term ‘other users’ to the list of consumers of Talabira coal, as contained in the preamble, to accommodate the sale of coal on the open market. Such a provision would justify the continued trucking of coal on the area’s road network.
The EAC, which recognised that road transport of coal will ‘directly impact the environment’ and increase the ‘pollution load’ has also recommended that the ministry take appropriate action against the project proponent for having missed the deadlines for implementing the terms and conditions contained in the letter granting environmental approval.