New Delhi: The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has given in-principle approval for relaxing air pollution standards for coal-fired thermal power plants. The decision was taken on May 17, 2019 in a meeting chaired by the ministry’s joint secretary, Ritesh Kumar Singh.
Authorised documents accessed by The Wire reveal that for a long time, the Union Ministry of Power has been demanding that the standard limit for air pollution set for thermal power plants be increased to 450 mg/Nm³ (mg/normal cubic meter) from 300 mg/Nm³. Although the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the apex organisation that sets pollution standards in the country, had opposed this, the power ministry’s demand has ultimately been accepted.
It is noteworthy that before the meeting, the CPCB had sent a monitoring report on seven units of four thermal power plants to the Ministry of Environment on May 2, 2019. The pollution body found that emissions at just two units out of the seven exceeded the 300 mg/Nm³ emission limit.
Both units found to be exceeding this limit during the monitoring are owned by Adani Power Rajasthan Ltd. The monitoring was carried out jointly by the CPCB and the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) of the Ministry of Power.
After a longstanding disagreement between the CPCB and the CEA, it was decided that the two would conduct joint monitoring of selected thermal power plants and a decision would be taken based on the report.
Subsequently, the CPCB and the CEA monitored Adani Power Rajasthan Ltd situated in Rajasthan’s Kawai, NTPC Mouda Super TPS in Nagpur, Mahatma Gandhi TPS in Jhajjhar, Haryana and Nabha Power Ltd in Rajpura, Punjab between February 13, 2019 and April 2, 2019.
The environment ministry had issued a notification on December 7, 2015 setting air pollution standards for thermal power plants. According to it, nitrogen oxide emission from thermal power plants set up between 2003 to 2016 should not exceed 300 mg/Nm³.
However, after the Ministry of Power objected to it, the Ministry of Environment has given in-principle approval in May 2019 to increase the emission limit of nitrogen oxides from 300 mg/Nm³ to 450 mg/Nm³.
According to the minutes of the meeting obtained by The Wire, representatives of the Ministry of Power, the CPCB, the NTPC and the Ministry of Environment were present in the meeting. The final decision in this matter will be taken by the secretary of the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Power.
According to the monitoring report of the CPCB and the CEA, the emission of nitrogen oxides from both units of Adani Power Plant was 509 mg/Nm³ and 584 mg/Nm³, which is much higher than the prescribed 300 mg/Nm³ limit. On the other hand, nitrogen oxide emission from five units of the other three plants was between 200-300 mg/Nm³.
Pollution from nitrogen oxides causes respiratory problems and exposure to it over long periods can cause severe lung damage. After vehicles, thermal power plants are the biggest contributors to nitrogen oxide pollution in India. In February this year, researchers at Switzerland’s ETH Zurich University released a report which said that India’s thermal power plants are the unhealthiest in the world.
According to a report published by Business Standard on August 12, the Supreme Court had noted while hearing the matter in its order dated August 5, 2019 that a general consensus for diluting air pollution standards has been reached between the Ministry of Environment, the CPCB, the Ministry of Power and the Environment Pollution Control Authority appointed by the court.
However, according to the correspondence and file notes accessed by The Wire, there was no consensus between the CPCB and the Ministry of Power until May 2019 to relax air pollution standards. The CPCB had claimed that the standards set in 2015 can be easily achieved. According to the minutes of meeting, “The CPCB official stated that five out of seven units which were monitored are following the 300 mg/Nm³ limit of nitrogen oxide emission at full load. However, some units are unable to follow it at part load.”
According to documents obtained, apart from Adani Power Plant, Nabha Power Ltd situated in Punjab’s Rajpura was unable to follow the 300 mg/Nm³ standard at part-load, that is 50% load. The nitrogen oxide emissions from the plant were recorded at 522.7 mg/Nm³ and 559.4 mg/Nm³ during this period. However, when it was functioning at full load, its nitrogen oxide emissions were 92.8 mg/Nm³ and 282.3 mg/Nm³, which means the plant was able to meet the 300 mg/Nm³ standard.
The Ministry of Power had also demanded that in addition to the thermal power plants set up between 2003 and 2016, the power plants that began operations from 2017 should also be allowed to emit pollutants at 450 mg/Nm³. As per earlier norms, the limit of nitrogen oxide emission from plants functioning since 2017 has been fixed at 100 mg/Nm³.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change sets the environmental standards for various departments based on the advice of the CPCB scientists. After long negotiations with experts and industrialists, the ministry had set standards for thermal power plants regarding water consumption, sulphur dioxide emission and nitrogen oxide emission in December 2015.
In response to the questions sent by The Wire, Adani Power said, “All Power Plants of Adani Power, including the 2×660 MW Kawai Thermal Power Plant of Adani Power Rajasthan Limited are complying with all the norms applicable at present. At present, there are no norms for NOx. As per CPCB’s directions dated 11.12.2017, APRL has to comply with the new norms of NOx by the year 2022.”
However, in a meeting held on September 1, 2017, the Ministry of Environment had decided that the new norms should begin to be implemented from 2018. The maximum NOx emission from the two units of Adani Power Rajasthan Ltd were 685.45 mg/Nm³ and 616.73 mg/Nm³ in August 2019, while the minimum emissions from these units during this month were 129.77 mg/Nm³ and 190.20 mg/Nm³.
According to a Ministry of Power letter dated October 13, 2017, a total of 650 units with 1,96,667 MegaWatt capacity across the country are to follow the new norms by 2022. Previously, the ministry had sought to fix the deadline for the year 2024.
All these standards should have been implemented by the thermal power plants within two years, that is by December 2017, but owing to pressure from the Ministry of Power and the CEA, the date of its complete implementation has been increased from 2017 to 2022.
In addition to nitrogen oxide emission, the water consumption limit has already been diluted. Documents reveal that a reply was sought several times from the CPCB on the Ministry of Power’s demand for relaxing air pollution standards between 2017 and 2018, and each time the CPCB stated that there was no technical or operational hindrance in achieving the goal.
The Wire has sent a questionnaire to the environment ministry and the CPCB on the standards being relaxed. This article will be updated if they respond.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.