For a country that has thought long and hard and decided to retain coal as the predominant energy source of the future, India seems to have put in hardly any thought in drafting standards to control pollution from coal power plants. A draft notification stipulating standards, put up for comments on the environment ministry's website last week, exposes the ministry's lack of seriousness, replete as it is with errors, inconsistencies and baseless conditionalities. The process of seeking and incorporating public comment may yet yield a better notification. But just by itself, even an improved notification will not protect the beleaguered global or local environment from the ravaging power of coal unless it is accompanied by a massive overhaul of the monitoring and enforcement infrastructure.

Of course, at a time when one is starved for good news on the environmental front, even a notification such as this one is welcome. For one, it acknowledges, for the first time, that mercury is a pollutant of concern for coal power plants. Second, the standards proposed for power plants set up after 2017 for key pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are comparable to the rigorous numbers imposed by China three years ago. But the good news ends there.

Little effect

Even assuming that the regulation will be strictly enforced, the current draft, if notified without change, will have little effect on the lives of people who live near power plants set up before 2017. Here's why:

Nearly 90,000 megawatts or 55% of existing installed coal power plant capacity was set up between 2007 and 2015. These will not have to control pollution under the draft notification. That is because the draft has no regulatory limits for any pollution parameters for such plants set up between January 2007 and December 2016. These plants still have between 40 and 50 years of their design life to live out.

So whether this is a mistake or not it exposes the lack of seriousness with which the ministry is treating the subject of pollution control for coal power plants.

The draft, then, makes a curious categorisation of plants built between 2003 and 2006, and those set up before 2003, and imposes laxer standards for the latter. Why these dates were chosen or the basis for categorisation is not explained. Nearly 60,000MW of coal power plant capacity was installed before 2003. Most of this consists of 500MW or smaller units. These units have been allowed to emit 600 milligrams of corrosive sulphur dioxide per cubic metre of air (mg/m3) – three times more than what comparable Chinese plants can emit. Nitrogen oxides limits at 600 mg/m3 are six times laxer than for comparable Chinese plants. Pre-2003 plants are being permitted to put out 100 mg/m3 of particulate matter – three times the levels permitted by China.

All these standards may not make much sense to a casual reader. But arriving at the right numbers and enforcing the regulation is literally a matter of life and death for communities living along the fenceline of coal power plants.

Coal pollution

Electricity may go a long way in making life better. But, places where electricity is generated by burning coal are virtual hell-holes. Coal mining and coal-fired electricity generation devastate landscapes, pollute air and water and impoverish communities that live near mines and power plants.

Coal is mostly, but not all, carbon. Depending on its geographical and geological origin, coal contains differing levels of sulphur and toxic heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead. The process of mining, storage and transport releases coal dust, and exposes the coal to water (ground, surface or rain). Water leaches out these toxins into the local environment. Burning coal for electricity or any other purpose pumps out large quantities of carbon dioxide, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and various heavy metals as air pollution.

Carbon dioxide is a climate-changing gas, and coal-fired plants are the single largest source of this global warming gas. Sulphur dioxide is a potent respiratory toxin. Respirable dust, which until recently was not well-understood, is growing in stature as a cause of health concern. It is linked to cardiac effects, asthma and bronchitis – with the latter two affecting children and the elderly with particular ferocity.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation estimated air pollution to have caused 7 million premature deaths in 2012 – more than twice the death toll from tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS combined. Of this, 3.6 million deaths are attributed to outdoor air pollution with strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders, acute lower respiratory infections in children and lung cancer as the leading causes of death. Coal and fossil-fuel burning for energy and transportation are identified by the World Health Organisation as a significant source of outdoor air pollution.

The Global Burden of Disease (1990-2010) report prepared by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation ranks outdoor air pollution 5th of top ten health risks in India in 2010, accounting for 627,000 premature deaths. The World Bank estimates that outdoor air pollution may have knocked off 1.7% from the national GDP in 2009.

Left in the lurch

The notification will not give relief to those who need it the most. In Kathivakkam, a working class neighbourhood in North Chennai, the maximum recorded level of particulate matter in 2010-11 was 219 microgram/cubic metre and in the next year, it was 363 microgram/cubic metre. From officially being “very unhealthy,” the air had turned “hazardous” within one year. Kathivakkam is downwind of a cluster of coal-burning power plants – the Ennore Thermal Power Station, North Chennai Thermal Power Station and NTECL – petrochemical industries and a busy road. Rather than limit further increases in sources of pollution, this neighbourhood is slotted to host even more coal-fired power plants.

Particulate Matter, also known as PM 2.5, or dust that is less than 2.5 microns (one millionth of a metre) cannot be taken lightly. A 2010-2011 study by Urban Emissions estimated that between 80,000 to 115,000 people died prematurely because of respirable dust emanating from Indian coal-fired power plants. These deaths were associated with a cost to society of between $3.3 billion to $4.6 billion. Every 10 microgram increase in ambient PM2.5 dust levels is associated with an increase in the long-term risk of cardiopulmonary mortality by 6% to 13%.

Some commentators have eagerly welcomed the notification saying this is a great first step as it is comparable with Chinese standards. But this is not true. The Chinese rules impose more stringent standards for plants operating or coming up in existing pollution hotspots. The Indian Notification does not make any distinction between polluted locales like Kathivakkam and greenfield areas. By not regulating power plants set up between 2007 and 2016, and imposing lax standards on the remainder, the Ministry of Environment is condemning those who have already suffered with decades more of ill-health and death.

Mercury rising

Coal is a significant contributor to water pollution as well. Mercury in coal, which vapourises and escapes as an air pollutant, quickly returns to earth with precipitation and contaminates waterbodies. Here it is transformed into methyl mercury, a lethal form which is persistent, and readily taken up and biomagnified along the food chain. Mercury is so toxic that the United Nations has dedicated an entire Convention to eliminating its releases into the environment. The Convention is named after Minamata, a Japanese town where mercury releases to the Bay from Chisso Corporation in the 1950s accumulated in fish and poisoned the local population. India signed the treaty in October 2014, but is yet to ratify it.

The environment and human bodies in areas surrounding existing coal power plants are already showing signs of mercury stress. Sonbhadra district, home to Singrauli – the electricity capital of India – has 9500 MW of coal-based electricity plants. In October 2012, the Centre for Science and Environment released an explosive report on mercury contamination in the area. The report found “Frightening signs of mercury poisoning.” Mercury was found in 84% of the blood samples taken from local residents, and 58 % of the hair samples.

The report refers to a measurement of mercury in flue gas from an NTPC plant ostensibly in this region. The reported levels are 2.8 micrograms or 0.0028 mg/m3 of air. A 2014 report by the United Nations Environment Program found mercury emissions of 0.01484 mg/m3 from the Talcher power plant, and 0.01115 mg/m3 from the Korba plant.

Even at these levels, years of mercury emissions have resulted in lethal and debilitating loads of this neurotoxin in the environment and human bodies. But these levels are up to 10 times lower than what has been proposed as a standard in the proposed Notification.

Inadequate promise

If the ministry is serious about cleaning up the coal sector, it would start by cleaning up what has already been polluted. For this, existing power plants would need to be subject to the most stringent of standards; already polluted sites should not be burdened further; the non-existent enforcement infrastructure should be spruced up to ensure that standards are followed; mercury emissions should be drastically curbed; polluted environments and affected people should be identified expeditiously and rehabilitation measures put in place at the cost of the polluter; options other than coal – such as efficiency enhancement, renewables, reduction of wasteful consumption – should be explored.

Until then, this draft Notification will remain an inadequate promise for better behaviour after 2017 by an agency that does not have a track record to vouch for its trustworthiness.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based journalist and social activist.