The Daily Star (TDS): In light of your long-time experience on investigating coal water pollution, how do you assess the Rampal coal-fired plant?
Donna Lisenby (DL): We visited the site of Rampal and critically reviewed the tender document (TD) of the project. Based on what is proposed for Rampal, I have no doubt it will pollute water. Because similar types of coal-fired power plants pollute water in other places around the world.
The Rampal plant is not a state-of-the-art plant. The TD proposes wet coal ash pond which is a matter of great concern. Coal ash, the waste left over after coal is burned to generate power, contains concentrated amounts of heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium, and selenium, which are hazardous to human health, and to wildlife. In coal-fired power plants, the coal ash, mixed with water to form a toxic slurry, is stored in huge impoundments, commonly called coal ash ponds. We have done investigation of 40 coal ash ponds. All of them leak heavy metals that dangerously pollute water.
In the Rampal plant, the area of the coal ash pond will be 25 acres. The TD says that the ash pond is designed to handle the lowest quality of coal which means it will generate a lot more ash compared to high quality coal. So the 25 acre coal ash pond seems very small if the plant uses low quality coal.
The design of the coal plant that is stipulated in the recently issued TD is not satisfactory. It clearly shows that there is no minimum engineering standard to make sure that the ash pond does not leak. It does not have any mandatory requirement for a composite and impervious liner along the sides and bottom of the pond, clay liner, leachate collection system and water quality monitoring wells that are the basics to prevent any leakage. The plant also does not use scrubbers that help remove the sulfur oxides from ash.
TDS: How does the leak occur?
DL: When we burn coal, these metals disperse into air or ash. Mercury disperses into air. Rest of the heavy metals goes to ash. The ash with heavy metals goes into wet ash pond. When you put coal ash in water, heavy metals come out. It is like making a heavy metal tea. The water mobilises the heavy metal in the same way we put a tea bag in hot water and the brown tea comes into the clear water. If the ash pond does not have any proper leakage protection system it will leak. It will leak heavy metals into the ground water as well as into the surface water.
TDS: According to the TD, the coal ash pond will be located near the Poshur River. How will it impact the water body?
DL: When you build a coal ash pond along a river or near a coastal area it has to be kept away from the river. Otherwise, disasters like cyclones and floods will overflow the pond and heavy metals will get mingled with river water. I expected to see in the TD that the ash pond cannot be located within a thousand feet of the Poshur River. Unfortunately, that has not happened in the case of the Rampal Power Plant.
Another issue of concern is that the TD does not have any minimum safety standards for the dam around the coal ash pond. It says that the dam can be built by sand. It is ridiculous. Sand does not hold water. It is guaranteed to leak. Clay would be better construction material for the dam in the coastal zone.
TDS: So what is the alternative to wet coal ash pond? What will happen to the ash?
DL: Keeping the ash in dry conditions is the best alternative. The ash has to be kept in stored silos or in a covered area where rain cannot get in.
It has been said that the ash will be used in agriculture. This is terrible. It is like putting heavy metals in food grains. I think it is okay to recycle ash in concrete. It can encapsulate ash.
TDS: The Rampal Plant will require huge amounts of coal and the coal will be transshipped through rivers. Does it not pose a serious threat of coal water pollution?
DL: When I was in Rampal, I saw giant sea-going cargo ships. Similar types of cargo will be used for transshipment of the coal to Rampal Plant. Rampal is situated upstream from the Poshur River. The cargo was so big that it could not enter into the Poshur River. They had to dock in the middle of the Sundarbans. People will be sent to the barge, they will fill the bags, and the bags will be lifted by cranes and uploaded in the small barges. All shipments of coal have to go through this kind of hand transfer in the middle of the Sundarbans. They usually say the barge will be covered but when the unloading work goes on the barge, it remains open. Handling coal in open air in the midst of the Sundarbans will definitely pollute the water and environment of the Sundarbans.
Now after reaching the shore by small barges, the coal will be unloaded by giant grabber loaders which then reach over the water into the barge, pick up coal, spin around and drop it into the coal storage. These will also load and unload gypsum, limestone and coal ash. So here again they are pulling coal ash over the water. They say in the TD that they want these loaders to work in rough weather and for round the clock operation. If they work at night in rough weather conditions, they are going to put the coal ash in the water.
Handling coal with bare hands is very hazardous for the labourers. It causes black lungs and severe breathing problems.
TDS: We know a huge amount of water will be used in the coal power plant. That is another threat for nearby water bodies. What do you think?
DL: Coal fired power plants require more water than any other source of power generation. A coal power plant generally uses 1,100 gallons per MWH whereas a nuclear power plant requires 800 gallons per MWH.
In the TD it is said that the water will go through a water cooling system which will use all kinds of water from the Poshur River. The pipe that sucks water is bigger than the human size. It can suck in fish, fish eggs, dolphins, turtles and other water species. So the water sucking system will severely damage the biodiversity of the river as the river water will go through the plant in temperatures as hot as 200 degrees Celsius.
Then it goes to the cooling compartment and vapourises. And the remaining water used in the steam engine goes for recycling. As so much water is lost in vapour, the plant continues to suck more and more water that is called "make up water". The Poshur River is already a shallow river. So the plant will put serious pressure on the quantity and quality of the river water.
Furthermore, a percentage of the water will be used to wash the ash into the wet coal ash pond. It will be infected by heavy metals because there is no water treatment system there. It will also get discharged back into the river with heavy metals.
TDS: What are your final words about the coal-fired power plant at Rampal?
DL: First of all, I am against the coal-fired Rampal power plant because it will seriously damage the biodiversity of the Sundarbans, particularly the rivers.
However, as the government insists on pursuing this project, it should follow the 59 point directives of the Environment Ministry. I had hopes to see evidence of addressing these points in the TD. The government has not addressed those suggestions at all. These points need to be addressed. There should be no wet ash pond in the plant. The plant should use dry ash handling method.
Bangladesh suffers from a lack of clean water to grow food and to provide safe drinking water to its people. It is a choice of the government whether they want to use the water for people or waste it in coal-fired power plants. The country has the huge potential of becoming a role model of low carbon economy by tapping its renewable energy sources. The government should strive for that.