coal country

There's pressure on environmental agencies to allow more coal to pass through Goa

Officials claim the port authorities have frequently invoked the Prime Minister's Office to get environmental clearances.

In 2012, when the Bombay High Court ordered the closure of two berths at Mormugao Port Trust that handled the arrival of coal imports, the residents of Vasco in Goa felt a sense of relief. The sea breeze had been blowing coal dust from the port eastwards into the city. A resident, Deelip Mandrekar, had written a letter to the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court in 2001. The letter became a petition, and 11 years later, the court upheld the case against the port.

The port trust closed down two berths – number 10 and number 11 – which were closest to the city. But the relief did not last long.

“I now see that this was a tactical move,” said TT Shreedharan, an advocate and activist who lives in Vasco. He was impleaded as the petitioner after Mandrekar passed away. Shreedharan pointed out the 2012 judgement of the Bombay High Court had asked the port to explore “enclosed” coal handling to reduce pollution.

The idea had come from the port trust itself. In a feasibility report submitted to the High Court in July 2010, it had outlined a plan to develop an enclosed terminal on berth 11, where four million tonnes of coal could be unloaded and stored in silos or domes. The cost of civil works was estimated at Rs 425 crore.

In late 2011, the port trust told the court that the enclosed terminal could be built on berth 11 by October 2014, and that open air coal operations on berths 10 and 11, which are closest to the city, could be moved here. Convinced that this would “substantially redress” the grievance raised in the petition, the High Court concluded the case in early 2012.

But the port did not build the enclosed terminal. It simply moved the open air operations to berths 5A and 6A further away from the city.

This map shows the location of the berths.

In the years since then, the volume of coal arriving at the port has risen rapidly. In 2014, the Adani group began operations on berth 7 with an annual coal handling capacity of five million tonnes. In 2016, it allotted berth 8 and 9 to Vedanta Resources for handling seven tonnes of coal annually on a public-private partnership. Now, JSW group, which has operated berth 5A and 6A since 2005, wants to double its operations from seven million tonnes to 14 million tonnes of coal annually.

In the process, said Shreedharan, the High Court’s order on limiting coal pollution emanating from the port has been rendered irrelevant.

The port chairman did not respond to Scroll.in’s queries. But reports commissioned by the port give insight into why the port wants to expand its coal handling capacity. With the expanding steel industry in Karnataka requiring more coal to fire its furnaces, the Mormugao Port Trust wants to position itself as the port of choice for coal arrivals, since Goa is closer to the steel plants compared to the ports on India’s eastern coast.

In its endeavour, the port trust has received support from the Union Ministry of Shipping, as the first story in this series reported. But residents allege even government agencies meant to safeguard the environment have sided with the port.

A declining interest

The Goa State Pollution Control Board is the state government agency that enforces environmental laws in the state. Industrial activity requires the board’s approval. It has the powers to shut down any activity that is causing air or water pollution beyond permissible limits.

For many years, the board kept a watch over the coal handling operations at Mormugao Port Trust.

In November 2012, Gammon India won a public-private partnership contract to develop an enclosed terminal at berth 11 to handle two million tonnes of coal. But in 2013, when the port trust sought permission from the pollution control board to open the terminal, the board raised concerns about increasing coal handling at the port. It pointed out that between JSW group and the Adani terminal, the port was already going to handle 12 million tonnes of coal. It asked the port trust to submit an impact assessment of coal handling at the existing berths, in order to get a permission for the new enclosed terminal. The port trust never submitted the study, and the enclosed terminal never came up.

In December 2015, it ordered Adani and JSW to cut down coal handling by 25% each for one year, after pollution levels repeatedly breached safe levels, and ordered both firms and the port trust to deposit Rs 10 lakh in bank guarantees.

But the recent expansion at the port has paralleled a decline in the board’s interest in monitoring the port, say residents.

In March 2016, the chairman of the board, Jose Manuel Noronha, an educationist, was promoted as chairman of the Goa State Public Service Commission. The chief secretary of Goa, RK Srivastava, was given additional charge of the board, even though it is an autonomous agency under statutory law.

In April 2016, the the board announced that it is doing a month-long “comprehensive study” of air pollution from coal handling at Vasco. In its next meeting the board members resolved that “further action will be initiated based on the report on the comprehensive study being carried out.”

In the next meeting of the board held on June 29, the coal pollution report was left out of all follow-ups to the previous meeting. The report has disappeared since.

In August, then state environment minister Rajendra Arlekar had briefly raised the issue in the state assembly. He said the air ambient quality monitoring stations installed in Vasco had shown dust pollution emanating from the port. “We have already asked them to reduce their handling by 25 per cent. The next step would be to reduce it by 50 per cent and if time comes, we will withdraw their consent to operate,” he said.

“We don’t want to play with life of people living in Vasco,” he added. “Those people have the right of clear air.”

But there was no follow-up action. Arlekar was defeated in the recent state assembly polls.

A senior officer of the pollution control board who did not want to be identified said that although the study had established high pollution levels, it had not carried out “source apportionment”, which would conclusively establish the exact quantum of pollution from each coal terminal. By then, the monsoon season had begun. “The rainfall settles dust particles, so you cannot take meaningful readings,” he said. “There was talk about giving the work to an IIT, but the subject never came up again.”

Invoking the PMO

The other government agency whose green signal was required for the Mormugao Port Trust’s expansion is the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority, a panel of bureaucrats and experts whose clearance is needed for any activity within 500 metres of the coast.

When the port trust approached the coastal authority for its dredging project, it raised several red flags. Its field inspection report, dated August 2015, warned that the “sudden” deepening of the approach channel could cause “drastic morphological changes”. Mormugao Port Trust is situated on the mouth of the Zuari river. The report explained that since the dredging would excavate 15 million cubic metres of seabed, massive amounts of river sediments could be flushed into it, eroding the river banks and threatening settlements along it.

The report also pointed out that the environment impact study conducted by Wapcos, the firm engaged by the port trust, did not assess these risks — it had not even prepared 3D images of the seabed, which would have helped know these risks better. The inspection report concluded that another agency be hired by the environment ministry at the centre to review the Wapcos study and give a second opinion.

Around this time, the Mormugao Port Trust chairman I Jeyakumar visited the coastal authority members “for an informal chat over tea”, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“He kept on justifying the project, saying that Mormugao Port is competing with ports on the east coast,” the official said. “He was talking more like a businessman than the chief of a government port. But is the job of a government port to make profits?”

The official added that for this project, the port trust officials who interacted with the coastal authority frequently invoked the Prime Minister’s Office. “I told them one day, ‘why are you invoking the PMO all the time. This is a scientific issue, let’s tackle it from a scientific viewpoint’. They think that by saying PMO’s name, people will keep quiet,” the official said.

Local fishermen are opposed to the port expansion. Photo credit: Nihar Gokhale.
Local fishermen are opposed to the port expansion. Photo credit: Nihar Gokhale.

The role of the environment ministry

In December 2015, based on its inspection report, the coastal authority sent the port trust’s proposal to the environment ministry to conduct further studies. The ministry’s expert appraisal committee – another panel of experts that takes a final call on giving environment and coastal zone clearances – endorsed the authority’s view on the risks associated with the expansion. It recommended a clearance to the project, but on the condition that the coastal authority’s recommendations “shall be complied with”.

There is no evidence of the environment ministry seeking a second opinion, or a review of the Wapcos study. Instead, in two months, it granted the clearance to the port trust, making no mention of the concerns raised by the coastal authority, and bypassing the mandated public hearing.

The National Green Tribunal subsequently quashed the clearance, while hearing a petition filed by two local fishermen cooperatives. A public hearing for the dredging project is now scheduled to be held on April 27.

The port trust’s relentless pursuit of the expansion project has led many residents to give up hope of a fair process. Anil Satardekar, a resident of Vasco who was hospitalised for sudden breathlessness, may not attend any of the three public hearings. The hearings are organised by the state pollution control board. “I have no faith in the pollution control board doing anything against MPT,” he said.

This is the second in a two-part series on the government’s push to build port and highway projects that residents fear will make Goa a coal hub. Read the first part here.

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