Maka coal naka [I don’t want coal].” “Goa against coal.” “Our goal, no coal”.

Those were among the signs on display as nearly 1,500 Goans gathered at a ground in the Vasco Da Gama town on Wednesday for a crucial environmental public hearing on whether the administration should permit the construction of facilities to allow large amounts of coal to be transported through the state. At stake, opponents of the idea contend, is the health of those who live near the proposed projects as well as the risk of increased environmental pollution.

The arguments were so passionate, the hearing continued until 1 am on Thursday, and were slated to continue for a few hours through the day.

As recently reported in a two-part series (read part one here and part two here), Mormugao Port Trust, a government-owned port located near Vasco, plans to increase the amount of coal imported there each year, from around 12 million tonnes now to 51 million tonnes by 2030.

The coal will be transported by road and rail to steel factories in north Karnataka. Coal is handled at Mormugao Port Trust by JSW and Adani Ports, while Vedanta Resources recently proposed a coal terminal.

Various parts of this expansion are seeking separate environment clearances. Three proposals are up for public hearings from Wednesday to Friday.

Wednesday’s hearing was for JSW’s proposal to double the 7 million tonnes of coal imported annually at its two berths at Mormugao Port Trust.

JSW has been the main handler of coal at Mormugao Port Trust since 2005, and is blamed for increasing the air pollution in Vasco, caused by the fine coal dust that rises from the port facilities. There also concerns that the increasing coal will affect fish populations.

After Wednesday’s hearing was announced, activist organisations in the state, including one affiliated to the Roman Catholic Church, asked residents to attend the proceeds to show their opposition to the projects. The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party also made their presence felt.

The public hearing was held with an unprecedented three-barricade separtion between the chair and the public, and strict entry checks by the police, who prohibited participants from carrying cameras, hard disks and water bottles. Companies of the Indian Reserve Battalion and Goa Armed Police were on standby.

The hearing lasted all day and saw over two dozen speakers making written and oral submissions, all asking for the project to be scrapped.

They argued that the environment impact assessment conducted by JSW paid no heed to the concerns around air quality and fishermen’s concerns about its effects of fish catch. They also asked how Goa’s image as a tourism hub would be affected by movement of the coal, which will cut across the state on road and rail.

“There is fine coal dust on the trees near my house,” asked Chandrashekhar Vast, a resident of Vasco. “What measures have they implemented so far to reduce dust pollution? What new will they do now?”

Said Fiola Rego, who was chairperson of the Mormugao Municipal Council in 2012, “There is no health survey done in the impact study about breathing ailments in Vasco because of coal. I had a friend who had severe asthma, which has got cured after she moved out. This itself shows how harmful their activities are.”

TT Shreedharan, whose fought a High Court case against the pollution that led to two berths being shut, said that as per the court’s 2012 judgement, all coal handling should be in enclosed facilities, which none of the operators are planning to instal.

Environmental public hearings are necessary for projects to obtain environment clearances. The Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, says that such projects proponents have to submit an environment impact assessment study for impacts within 10 kilometres of the project. The study is then released to the public, and a hearing held to receive objections or suggestions. The hearing has to be organised by the state’s pollution control board and chaired by the district collector.

The comments have to be considered by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change before it gives a clearance to JSW’s plans. It is empowered to even scrap the proposal, although that has rarely happened.

Avinash Tavares, a spokesperson for the Goa Congress, said that the process of conducting the environment impact assessment was flawed. According to the regulations, the study must be conducted in a 10 sq km area. However, Tavares claimed that air pollution was monitored only in a 5 km radius. “And the readings are only taken in summer... even a child knows that air rises in the heat and pollution levels are lower,” he said. “Why didn’t they take measurements in the winter?”

Despite the elaborate arrangements, there is a possibility that Wednesday’s public hearing was actually legally invalid. Terence Jorge, a researcher of public hearings, pointed out at the hearing the Environment Impact Assessment study had not been translated to the state’s official languages, Konkani and Marathi, as is necessary. Even of the English version was not submitted to many villages in the 10 km radius of the proposed projects nor to the state central library in Panaji. While the district collector said that the objection would be put on record and considered by the Ministry, Jorge said that the hearing was liable to be stayed by the courts.