How is the Barapukuria coal mine doing?
Barapukuria underground coal mine in Dinajpur district is the only coal mine in Bangladesh. The coal deposit was discovered at shallow and mineable depth in 1985 by the Bangladesh Geological Survey. However, Barapukuria had to wait 20 years before an underground mine was established in 2005 with the technical and financial assistance of the Chinese government. The main aim of the mine is to supply coal to the coal fired Barapukuria power plant at the mine's mouth. Coal production continues till date to fuel the power plant. By any standard it is a small mine running a modest power plant. But its importance is recognised in north Bengal where a significant power demand is met by the power plant.
Barapukuria mine is not miner friendly. It is overlain by a thick water bearing sand aquifer and underlain by a regime of high heat flow, thus it is popularly known as a mine with "water above and fire below". The sudden and complete inundation of the mine at a point in the past testified to it being vulnerable to being flooded by water. At several coal production areas, the working condition of the miners is very bad with very high temperature and humidity—endangering the health and safety of the miners. However, the underground mine has managed to be free from major accidental events like gas explosion, structural collapse and so on. The recovery of coal from this underground mine is expected to be only about 10 percent of the total coal deposit.
The above is perhaps a lesser reason for the Barapukuria coal mine to be known to the public, than the coal scandal that surfaced in 2018 from the loss allegedly by theft, of about 142 thousand tons of coal from the mine. The coal yard was almost empty and the power plant had to shut down. A number of inquiry committees investigated to find the cause of the coal loss and to find who was responsible. While some committees suggested system loss to be the cause of the missing coal, others pointed at manipulating the coal moisture content while trading the coal, thus causing the loss. There was, however, no hint by any of the inquiry committees of an act of physically removing the coal using bags or sacks or trucks or the like. Many observers believe that the act of herding together all previous managing directors of the Barapukuria coal mining company (BCMCL) by the law enforcing agency to send to jail without any specific allegation, has been unjustified, considering the social status they held. While the investigation into the allegation of the alleged coal theft is yet to be complete, the Barapukuria coal mine has returned to operating as per usual.
The Barapukuria mine has been running with the expected rate of coal production even during this pandemic period. But the power plant has been chronically underperforming. The 525 MW capacity power plant for most of its time could not generate half its capacity. The question arises whether the under performance of the power plant is linked to a lack of coal supply from the mine? If so, why isn't the required coal coming from the mine?
The Barapukuria coal-based power plant started running in 2006 with two units, 125 megawatt (MW) each, with a total generation capacity of 250 MW. The coal mine started producing coal from the end of 2005 under a contract between BCMCL and Chinese contractor CMC which run consequently for three terms till date. During the first contract period (2005 to 2011), the average annual production was 608 thousand metric tons of coal against an actual average annual demand of 444 thousand tons for the power plant. During the second contract period (2011 to 2017), the average annual coal production was 920 thousand metric tons against an actual average annual demand of 540 thousand metric tons. Therefore, the Barapukuria mine could supply the power plant with the required amount of coal during this time and could sell the remaining coal to the outside industry, mainly brickfields.
In 2018, a third unit of 275 MW capacity was added to the power plant, thus increasing the total power generation capacity of the plant to 525 MW. The coal requirement for running the power plant has now increased, but the coal production from the mine could not be increased consequently. According to the BCMCL, there was no assurance from their part given to the Power Development Board with respect to supply of additional coal to be required for the additional capacity installed in the power plant. In fact, the average annual coal production during the third contract period (2017-2021) was 840 thousand metric tons against an actual average annual demand of 1200 thousand metric tons. The reduction of coal production from the previous contract period, according to the BCMCL is due to the increased depth of coal and increased instability of coal faces in the 3rd slice.
The aforementioned factors indicate that the Barapukuria coal mine cannot produce enough coal to supply for generation of available capacity of the power plant. And this situation arises from the fact that the third unit of 275 MW capacity was added to the power plant without getting an assurance of additional coal supply from the Barapukuria coal mine. The Barapukuria mine is about to complete its mining operation in the central part soon and will then move to the northern part. It is understood that the average annual production from the northern part in the coming years will decrease due to mining constraints. The power plant is thus faced with the continued prospect of supplying lesser coal than is required for generating optimum power.
This leads one to ask, why was the additional power capacity of the third unit added, knowing that the coal may not be available to run it? Is this not a case of lack of coordination between governmental departments for which public money is being wasted?
What is the future like for the mine as well as the power plant? The mine in its present form and design cannot meet the power plant's coal demand. Bangladesh may increase coal production either by adopting to a different mode of underground mining or to limited open pit mining where coal can be found at shallower depths subject to sociable acceptability. At a time when Bangladesh begins implementing large scale coal-based power generation, it is perhaps not rational to keep most of its own coal fields unexploited. Being the only coal mine in the country, the performance and experience of the Barapukuria coal mine will have lessons to share, should the government want to change its coal import policy and decide to add national coal to lessen the coal import volume.
Dr Badrul Imam, Honorary Professor, Geology Department, Dhaka University.