Do not steal our birthright


Coal burning

by Ranil Senanayake

The totally incredulous decision announced by the Prime Minister and by the Minister for Power and Energy that Sri Lanka should rely even more on fossil fuels, specifically on more coal powered-power plants, cannot go unanswered. The callous disregard of the health of the next generations or even the violation of our fundamental right to breathe the quality of air that we grew up in seems to have no value for these ‘leaders’. The entire goal of ‘economic development’, to Sri Lanka politicians, seem to be ‘borrow as much money as we can and boast about how much was borrowed,’ with no idea on how to pay back that loan. They create a massive dependency on power by selling cheap to industry and ‘development’ projects and then whinge that we need coal-fired power plants, never mind their impact on public health and cultural artefacts.

What words can be used to describe people who sell and destroy the birthright and culture of their own people for the gain of personal wealth or political power? To answer this question, it is critical to understand the scope of the words birthright and culture.

A birthright is the privilege or possession that a person has or is believed to be entitled to as soon as he or she is born. The primary birthright of any human is the right to life. Once alive, the ability to continue living is a consequence of the environment that the person is born into. Thus the birthright of any individual will be to enjoy whatever health and wellbeing the environment that they have been born into can provide. While there is a great discrepancy in the nature of the environments that each of us are born into, the condition of that environment we are born into must represent our most fundamental birthright. Any degradation of that environment must transgress that right and must be seen as transgressing our fundamental human right.

Culture is the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, to act imaginatively and creatively; and the distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively. Culture represents the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

With these definitions in mind, we can examine the intent and the consequences of the decisions to create a nation dependent on coal-fired power plants as their primary source of energy.

Irrespective of the debate on energy profligacy as an indicator of ‘development’, it will be of value to look at the human cost of the currently promoted cheap energy source ‘Coal’. Is this activity compromising our fundamental right, the right to life?

In a healthy population the right to life has been expressed well, a people enjoying a high quality of air, should not have their right to life compromised by the choice of our sources of energy. We are being bullied into a future that depends on the burning of coal for our power needs. Do we need to invest our capital in creating a slew of national problems?

But let us look at birthright and culture. In committing this nation to be coal dependent what might be the possible consequences to our birthright and culture?

The greatest of all gifts is the gift of health, said the Buddha. Does coal bring health to a nation? Two nations ensnared in having to burn coal for their power needs are China and India.

The South China Morning Post - Nov 5th 2014 reports that the pollution caused by coal burning killed an estimated 670,000 in China in 2012

In a study of the cost of coal burning for power plants a new study made during 2012 and officially backed by the China Academy of Environmental planning who agreed with research by Tsinghua and Peking Universities that suggested that the massive health problems that China has today was a consequence of burning coal to drive the power plants they conclude that a sum 260 Yuan must be added to each tonne of Coal burnt to account for the health cost to the nation. Today China has cancelled all new coal-fired power plants and is looking at replacing the existing output, through renewables. That is a government sensitive to the health and well-being of its people.

In addition to the well-known consequences of Lead and Mercury, Sulphuric compounds and Oxides of Nitrogen are produced by Coal burning power plants, all of which produce gasses that mix with the ambient air and degrade the human birthright to a healthy air quality.

For instance, 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 behavior spans.

In Puttlam and along the Kalpitiya lagoon, where 15% of the fish consumed through the nation comes from, establishing coal-fired power plants is like bringing open bottles of poison into a house with small children.

In addition to the poison load in food, there is the added specter of PM2.5. or tiny particulate matter emanating from Coal-fired power plants, these substances alone contributed to 670,000 premature deaths in China. Deaths resulted from lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The study also found that over 70 percent of population was exposed to annual PM2.5 pollution levels higher than 35 micrograms per cubic meter, the benchmark of clean air quality for China. A previous study published in the British medical journal Lancet, stated that in 2010 outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China. A specialist in the area, Dr. Lockwood, has provided data on the toxicology and physiological effects of small particulate matter. His studies demonstrate how inhaling small particles might cause heart disease, stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes, IQ loss, and perhaps even diabetes. China is now scrambling to find and answer, difficult today, as the country relies on this fuel for over 70 percent of its energy needs.

The poisoning from coal does not stop there. After it is burnt there are the mountains of coal ash. 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, anemia, and stomach cancer. Frequent inhalation can cause asthma, wheezing, and lung cancer

The question that must arise in the public mind must be ‘Are our fundamental right to life being compromised by the operation of coal fired power plants?’ The watchdogs of society the ministries under whose purview comes public health and the environment, must answer this question. They must examine the EIA’s and check if there is any disclosure of the facts above when considering granting licenses.

In addition to all these woes there will be a negative impact on the biodiversity of the region affected by the the combination of flue gasses, Oxides of Nitrogen and Oxides of Sulphur creating acidification of the soil and foliage. This effect has been proven time after time all over the world.

Culturally, we live on a land where the rocks were turned into the art that bespoke our culture. Clouds of acid rain from coal-fired power plants will accelerate the rate of erosion of all exposed surfaces. Ignoring the possibility of the erosion of our cultural icons truly indicates an erosion of the culture. Why there was no mention of or concern shown to address these possibilities, beggar’s belief.

Acid rain is formed when oxides of nitrogen and sulfite emanating from Coal fired power stations, combine with moisture in the atmosphere to make nitric and sulfuric acids. The more coal flue gasses, the more concentrated the acidity and any precipitation with a pH level less than 5.6 is considered to be acid rainfall.  It will begin to erode the cultural artifacts. The difference between regular precipitation and acid precipitation is the pH level. 

There are some who decry concern for the Sri Maha Bhodiya, But the reality is that being a plant it too will suffer the way all plants around it will suffer when the slow poisoning of the acid rain begins.

It is al so important to ask what is the need for all this power? Is it to supply Sri Lankans their basic needs or is it to push industry and consumptive lifestyles. Is it to supply the new urban structures that have begun to destroy the quality of the air in the city of Colombo ?

So while the Norocholi Power plant is currently poisoning the air of the rural areas in the North West, the decrease in air quality in Colombo is due to the nonsensical push to create mega, energy consuming and atmosphere stifling structures. This lopsided idea of ‘development’ requires energy to drive it. Thus the call for any type of power no matter how dangerous as long as these power plants can feed their Megapolis. This is such a stupid reason for poisoning our children and grandchildren

It seems that the Environmental Protection Agency too is too busy protecting the Agency more than protecting the public from the high impact on air quality crated by the mega construction mega traffic flows. Maybe it is time to call in the ‘Mega Police’.

The people of this nation must take a stand on the political abuse of our air and water quality in the name of ‘development’. The discounting of our fundamental rights in the name of ‘development’ must cease. Let us begin with creating a national movement to safeguard this nation by opposing the building of coal-fired power plants anywhere in the future!


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