Sixteen new thermal power plants that started operations in India between January and June violate the mandatory new air pollution regulations that the environment ministry put in place two years ago. None of them abide by the regulations under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, which require them to cap the emission of pollutants – hazardous oxides of nitrogen and sulphur – below strict prescribed limits.

The new rules, notified in December 2015, imposed limits on emissions of poisonous oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, and mercury for the first time. They also tightened the norms for water consumption while putting a tighter cap on permissible levels of emission of particulate matters – tiny particles in the atmosphere that can easily enter one’s lungs.

The rules mandated that all fossil-fuel based power plants that come up after January 1, 2017, should follow the new pollution standards. Existing power projects were also required to retrofit their plants in order to bring their pollution levels in line with new standards by December 2017.

However, a status report prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board shows that none of the 16 power plants that started operations from January meet the stricter emission norms, which require the deployment of costly pollution abatement technology. They have only met the standards for the particulate matter norms, which are easier, and cheaper, to adhere to.

This revelation comes on top of the fact that the Central Electricity Authority, which is controlled by the Union Ministry of Power, has already devised a plan to help existing power plants – numbering more than 300 – to dodge the December deadline to retrofit their plants to adhere to the new pollution norms. The Central Electricity Authority has laid out a phased plan for the plants, which requires them to follow these standards only starting 2020. This has been done without the environment ministry formally amending its 2015 notification that imposes the new norms from December.

The new standards

Coal-based thermal power plants are one of the key drivers of pollution by oxides of sulphur and nitrogen in and around industrial clusters. Breathing in these pollutants can lead to adverse respiratory reactions such as airway inflammation, bronchoconstriction and symptoms of asthma. They also react in the atmosphere to produce fine particles containing sulphate or nitrate that make up a significant fraction of the air pollutant called particulate matter 2.5, which is 30 times smaller than the average width of a human hair, and which chokes the airways to the lungs.

Prior to December 2015, India did not have standards for emissions of oxides of sulphur and nitrogen and mercury from thermal power plants. The only standards that existed were for particulate matter, and these were quite lax when compared with global best practices.

The environment ministry defended the operations of the new plants.

A senior official who did not wish to be identified as the official is not authorised to speak to media, said: “All the [16] plants are meeting the particulate matter standards.”

Asked why the plants did not meet the standards for oxides of sulphur nitrogen, the official said: “They will also be taken care of. The discussion is going on. There will be a roadmap.”

Dodging implementation

The new standards were set on the recommendations of the Central Pollution Control Board and after repeated consultations between the ministries of power and environment.

However, the power industry started resisting their implementation as soon as they were notified.

To meet the new pollution norms for sulphur oxides, fossil fuel-run power plants are required to install a technology called flue-gas desulphurisation, which helps remove sulphur dioxide from exhaust gases produced by these plants. The power industry argued that this significantly increased the cost of power production. But environmentalists said that the cost was nothing as compared to the damage caused by pollution to human health.

Documents show that the power ministry called at least two ministerial meetings with the environment ministry last year to address the concerns of the power industry. The Central Pollution Control Board was asked to respond to all the representations made by power producers and industry bodies. It did so and found no reason to delay the implementation of the norms. It concluded that all the industry’s concerns had been taken into consideration while setting the standards and setting out the two-year period to implement them.

However, going against the timeline for implementation of new standards, as notified in the 2015 rules, the Central Electricity Authority proposed to give 300 power plants a deadline ranging between 2020 and 2024 to put the flue-gas desulphurisation technology in place.

New power plants and violations

The 16 new plants that violate norms have done so using a grey area created by the lack of required action by the environment ministry.

All power projects start construction only after they receive mandatory environmental clearance from the ministry, which stipulates the conditions the project must meet once it starts operations.

These plants got their environmental clearances before December 2015, when the new standards were notified. However, the notification makes no exception for plants that received their environment clearances before the notification was issued. In fact, it specifically mentions that thermal power plants installed after January 1, 2017 should follow the norms, including those “which have been accorded environmental clearance and are under construction”.

The environment ministry is fighting a case before the National Green Tribunal in which Greenpeace India has alleged that the ministry is not implementing the 2015 air pollution rules.

On September 11, the tribunal asked the ministry to submit a report on the status of the implementation of the new emission standards. The ministry submitted the list of these 16 new plants to the tribunal. It also said that three other plants that were accorded environmental clearances after January 2017 have been asked to adhere to the new pollution norms.