Cities & Architecture

Controversy Dogs Waste-to-Energy Plant

New Delhi: At a time when the Capital’s second waste-to-energy plant is on the verge of opening, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has forwarded a complaint to the Central Pollution Control Board regarding its first one at Okhla-Timarpur. The charge is that the 1,950 metric tonne-per-day capacity Okhla plant is not meeting emission standards and is using unapproved technology.

CPCB chairman Shashi Shekhar is also special secretary in the MoEF heading the Hazardous Substances Management Division that deals with issues of municipal solid waste (MSW). MoEF sources said the ministry would prefer to tread cautiously on the issue as the matter is pending adjudication both in the High Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT). “We would definitely like to evaluate the issue as it is a matter of environment and public health but would not want to get in the crosshairs of the two warring sides,” said an official.

For several years now, the residents of colonies surrounding the plant and the Delhi Government and the Jindal conglomerate-owned Timarpur-Okhla Waste Management Co Pvt Ltd have been engaged in litigation over the feasibility, use of technology and pollution being caused by the plant. Starting 2009, when the residents took the matter to the Delhi High Court claiming that the plant was emitting dioxins and heavy metals, the matter was heard 28 times in the High Court. In February 2013, the case was shifted to the NGT, where there have been 21 hearings since.

In the last NGT hearing on May 12, advocate Pinaki Mishra, arguing on behalf of the residents of Sukhdev Vihar abutting the Okhla plant, had submitted that Jindal was using obsolete technology. In gross violation of MoEF guidelines which provide for establishing two refuse-derived fuel plants, a bio-methanation plant and a power plant, Mishra argued that the plant was using “reciprocating stoker type boilers of Chinese origin”, provided by the Hangzhou Boiler Group. Mishra said these boilers had been phased out in China due to the high pollution levels they were causing after protests by locals in several cities including Guangdong and Luoding.

Apart from this being a case of “substitution of technology”, Mishra pointed out that the plant was bang in the middle of a densely populated area, with serious consequences for those living around.

Although the Okhla plant’s licence expired on March 20, 2013, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) told the NGT that it was still considering its renewal. At present, the plant is processing 1950 MT of waste and generating 16 MW of power. In a meeting with residents in February, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal reported gave assurances that the plant would be shut down.

Environmentalists say the problem lies in the fact that in India while benchmarks exist in the form of emission norms, there are no specifications on the kind of technology that can be used. However, as Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch Alliance notes, once a certain technology has been approved and given environmental clearance, substitution of technology is prohibited.

Krishna claimed that a technical review by the High Powered Technical Experts Evaluation Committee headed by the Chairman, CPCB, had revealed that the efficacy of reciprocal stoker type boilers (in place of RDF) “is not known for Indian conditions and requires to be verified.”

In his complaint to the Union Minister, Krishna charged that despite having taken cognizance of the breach of law, the NGT has till date not provided any relief to the residents of Okhla area. “In effect, what the NGT has done between February 2013 and May 2015 is to constitute committees and wait for their reports even as the residents and birds of Okhla continue to be engulfed by the toxic ash fall from the highly polluting plant. If this is going to be the case, it is better for the High Court to hear the matter,” he said.

What has also irked environmentalists is that the Delhi government is going ahead with plans to operationalise more such plants in Ghazipur and Bhalaswa-Jahangirpuri, near existing garbage disposal sites. The 1,350-MT plant at Ghazipur has undergone trials and is about to be operationalised soon. Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia visited the Ghazipur site recently and declared: “It is undoubtedly expensive but we need to do such experiments to make Delhi a world-class city. The plant is ready but not working since some files have been pending in the excise department. We will get those cleared as soon as possible.”

Krishna said the Delhi Government had failed to appreciate the health concerns arising from the installation of such plants. He noted that while ordering the closure of a biomedical waste incinerator plant at Sukhdev Vihar, Okhla, the Delhi High Court had relied on the ‘The summary of “Epidemiological Studies on Adverse Health Effects Associated with Incineration” which had referred to how medical waste incinerators are a leading source of dioxins and mercury in the environment and how there existed a link between incinerator emissions and adverse health impacts on incinerator workers and residents living around the incinerators.

The study had noted that “After 2 years of operation of the incinerator, dioxin levels were found increased by about 25% in both groups living between 0.5 to 1.5 and 3.5 to 4.0 km away (201 people) of people. In the repeat analysis, the increase was in the range of 10-15%”. Further, it was stated that “residents living within 10 km of an incinerator, refinery, and waste disposal site” showed “significant increase in lung cancer related specifically to the incinerator” and “people living within 7.5 km of 72 incinerators” displayed “risks of all cancers and specifically of stomach, colorectal, liver and lung cancer increased with closer proximity to incinerators”.

But while ordering the closure of the biomedical waste incinerator located in the vicinity of the residential colonies, the court had not passed similar directions on Jindal’s neighbouring waste-to-energy incinerating plant.