Don’t mix national well-being with coal contracts


Norochcholai power plant

by Ranil Senanayake

Mr. D.A.D. Sirimal in his defense of the ailing, coal fired Norochcholai power plant (Island 5-06 -18), states that the CEB had commissioned a study on the effect that coal fired power plants had on crops and trees and that the study concluded that there were no adverse effects on plants by coal fired power plants. This needs urgent clarification as the fate of our vegetation and the health of our people seem to be determined by the CEB consultants study. In the world outside Sri Lanka Acid Rain brought about by Coal burning power plants has been clearly identified with damage to trees and soil. The international experience is that ‘Acid rain does not usually kill trees directly. Instead, it is more likely to weaken the trees by damaging their leaves, limiting the nutrients available to them, or poisoning them with toxic substances slowly released from the soil. The main atmospheric pollutants that affect trees are nitrates and sulphates. Forest decline is often the first sign that trees are in trouble due to air pollution.’

Thus it will be very useful to see the report by the CEB consultant who, GADS claims has stated that these will be ‘absolutely no impact on our vegetation by burning coal’. This seems to fly in the face of global experience. It might illustrate the phrase that ‘Sri Lanka is a land like no other’. We must request the consultant’s report to be made public, or it might be concluded that the consultant is attempting to ‘Greenwash’ the reality of dirty coal.

Of all sources of energy, the most toxic after nuclear is coal. Coal comes in many grades, from reasonably ‘clean’ or relatively free from Sulphur and heavy metals to low quality cheap coal that is laden with toxins.

It is estimated that, one 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant produces approximately 3 million tons of Carbon Dioxide a year. All this going straight into the atmosphere to make us more climate irresponsible. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Burning coal produces many more toxins other than carbon dioxide into the air to affect people living as much as 100 miles away from the power plant and the coal ash becomes a dangerous source of health hazards that persist for years as the toxic ash is carried by wind and water into local communities.

Burning coal releases large amounts of the neurotoxin mercury into the air. Globally, coal-fired power plants are the single largest emitter of mercury emissions, accounting for over 50 percent of the mercury pollution caused by humans. Once released, mercury settles in streams, lakes and rivers and on the earth itself, where it infiltrates the groundwater. From there, it enters the food chain via algae and infects all life forms, from minnows to predator fish to birds and mammals, whose diets include fish, it goes up the food chain, the concentration of mercury intensifies.

Emissions from the coal-burning power plants release the mercury into the atmosphere, which can travel thousands of miles before coming back to the Earth or the ocean. Billions of tons of coal being burned in Asia (especially India and China) have sent all the resulting mercury over the Pacific Ocean. Here it gets into the ocean’s food chain. The microorganisms in the sea convert this metallic mercury, which is not terribly hazardous, into another form of mercury called methyl mercury, which is very hazardous,"

All coal contains tiny amounts of mercury, but it adds up when millions and millions of tons of coal are burned each year. Plankton absorbs the mercury, which are then eaten by small fish, and up the food chain. Thus, the disturbing levels of mercury that are currently found in oceanic fish such as Tuna, Swordfish etc. actually comes from coal-burning power plants. Eating more than a little of such fish is not recommended for pregnant women and very young children. A recent study demonstrated that in the baby’s brain, it kills neurons, it erodes the connections between cells and results in babies born with a three to eight points lower IQ than they should have had, they tend to have shorter attention spans, and behaviour spans.

According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 people a year die prematurely because of pollution from coal-fired power plants. And every year 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and an additional 550,000 asthma attacks result from power plant pollution.

As if this was not enough, there is the spectre of coal ash ensures that the polluting effects of coal burning continue for long periods after burning. Coal ash is the hazardous waste that remains after coal is burned. Dumped into unlined ponds or mines, the toxins readily leach into drinking water supplies. Piled into surface mounds it gets picked up by the wind and distributed for miles around. The toxins found in Coal ash are, Chromium, Selenium, Lead, Arsenic and Boron.

Chromium affects the Brain and Spine. Ingestion of chromium can cause stomach and intestinal ulcers, anaemia, and stomach cancer. Frequent inhalation can cause asthma, wheezing, and lung cancer. 

Selenium affects the Lungs, Stomach, and Intestines. Although Selenium is used in many bodily functions, deficiencies or excesses can be bad for one’s health. Excess intake of selenium can result in a host of neurological effects, including impaired vision and paralysis, and even death.

Lead affects the Spine. Exposure to lead can result in brain swelling, kidney disease, cardiovascular problems, nervous system damage, and even death. It is accepted that there is no safe level of lead exposure, particularly for children.

Arsenic affects the Brain, Spine, Lungs, Heart, Kidneys, and Intestines. Ingestion of arsenic can lead to nervous system damage, cardiovascular issues, and urinary tract cancers. Inhalation and absorption through the skin can result in lung cancer and skin cancer, respectively.

Boron affects the Lungs, Heart, and Spine. Inhalation of boron can lead over the short-term to eye, nose, and throat irritation. Ingestion of large amounts, however, can result in damage to the testes, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain, and eventually lead to death.

This was my concern, burning Coal will affect the national well-being. The sorry sight of a bureaucrat with no knowledge of the subject under his control, depending on foreign consultants to tell him what to do is a pathetic display of the malaise that has become a cancer of our nation. To make things worse we have engineers threatening to shut down Norochcholai, if an Environmental Protection Licence (EPL) is not granted. What then is the use of having an EPL requirement if the engineers threaten to strike if it is not issued? I guess the next thing will be to do away with Environmental safeguards completely in the name of Foreign investment. Currently, bureaucrats are now signing trade agreements that will allow this nation to become a dumping yard for toxic and nuclear waste.

We have a bunch of ignorant, greedy politicians with little care for the well-being of our population. Driven by metrics such as the GDP, they will sacrifice our future for their current gain. Bureaucrats like GADS with their uninformed attitude will only help this tragic destructive process.

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