New Delhi: The environment ministry has issued a wide range of directions for safeguarding the health of those who live near or work at a thermal power plant.
Through an official notification on November 19, the ministry made it mandatory for all new thermal power plants to comply with a “human health environment” criteria in order to get clearance for their operations.
“It’s a welcome first step. Its been a long-standing demand of various communities that health be considered as an aspect of environmental clearances,” said Shweta Narayan, the coordinator at Health Energy Initiative.
The notification states that a baseline health assessment of people in the area should be done and a report prepared, followed by mitigation measures to address endemic diseases.
The notification also addresses specific issues that affect those involved in such hazardous occupations.
For example, it states that a bi-annual health check of all workers in the company should be done. The ministry specified that the study should take into account chronic exposure to noise and air-polluting agents, explaining that the adverse effects include “increase in heart rate and blood pressure, hypertension and peripheral vasoconstriction and thus increased peripheral vascular resistance.”
It goes into further detail, stating that a periodic medical exam should be done to check for hearing loss in workers and the information maintained in an audiometric loss. This should then be used for treating those who have suffered hearing loss including “rotating to non-noisy/less noisy areas.”
Narayan said that this too is an improvement: “Things used to be wishy-washy on addressing the occupational health issues. Now this notification has said there should be a baseline of even the community’s health.”
First steps towards health impact clearances
Specifically, on air pollution, the government’s notification has listed eight measures to improve air quality monitoring and management. These measures are meant to cater to air pollution from sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. It also notified measures to deal with various particulate matter and dust at hot spots like excavation sites, crusher plants and transfer points.
The new rules on the issues of air quality, noise pollution and “human health environment” will be part of the environmental clearances needed for new thermal power plants.
The compliance in these areas will be assessed by expert committees who look over proposals for power plants. This committee is also allowed to modify, omit or make new conditions necessary for applicants.
But the government shouldn’t see this as the last step, said Narayan. “They still need to bring in a comprehensive health impact assessment along with an environmental impact assessment. While a baseline study is important, this is just the beginning. We now have higher expectations from the ministry.”
She added that the ministry can go forward and do more. For example, public health members should also be a part of the expert appraisal committee to decipher the health data that comes out of the baseline survey.
“The section only speaks about checkups by the project proponent but doesn’t speak up putting this report out anywhere for public consumption,” said Swati D’Souza, a consultant on oil and gas at Brookings India. She said that this is a problem because, without transparency on these reports, there can be no accountability on compliance. “The problem with the idea that the ‘polluters pay’ is that it fails without robust monitoring.”
Some of these proposals in the notification are not new, and D’Souza said that even though they existed before, power plants have refused to comply for many reasons.
Links to the efforts of villagers in Chhattisgarh
Narayan also credits the work done in Chhattisgarh by villagers in Raigarh around two coal mines, Gare Palma IV/2 and Gare Palma IV/3.
The Wire reported how the villagers here had petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in two cases, asking for specific measures to be taken to protect the health of those who live at the edge of these two mines.
In June this year, the NGT passed orders saying that Coal India should depute a doctor on a permanent basis to serve the villagers who live around the mines. Coal India is the current custodian of these mines, taking over from Jindal Steel and Power Limited.
However, the order has not yet been implemented and the matter comes up again at the NGT in February to assess compliance.
“The order from the NGT is significant and they also upheld a report written by bureaucrats in both the environment ministry and the coal ministry, which had spoken about the ill effects of mining on the health of the villagers,” said Narayan.