The transport of coal in Goa, at the rate of 25 tonnes a minute, by rail, road and river, The Indian Express investigation revealed, leaves in its wake health risks and environmental damage across the state. The problem isn’t new. Way back in the 1990s, a working group of the then Planning Commission formulating the Tenth Five-Year plan for coal and lignite sectors had discussed at length the possibility of setting up coal slurry pipelines for moving large amounts of coal over long distances in the country.
Pipeline transportation, the preferred mode in some developed countries from the 1960s, is environment-friendly, and also cost-effective in the long-run.
Express Investigation part 1: Coal on move, 25 tonnes a minute, is choking Goa, more is on the way
But the recommendation was never acted upon.
“The situation was very different in those years. And the priorities were very different too…Coal slurry pipelines need two very important things — large amounts of water to mix the coal in, and lots of energy to move the slurry in the pipelines over long distances, and also to drain the water at the destination. Both water and electricity are precious commodities. At that time, it was considered much wiser to invest in moving electricity to areas that were still unelectrified than to use that electricity to move coal,” said Ajay Mathur, director general of Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), and a former head of Bureau of Energy Efficiency.
As a result, India, one of the largest users of coal in the world, does not have a single coal pipeline anywhere.
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Trains and trucks are used to carry coal to hundreds and thousands of kilometers, releasing huge amounts of coal dust in the atmosphere and leading to what Goa has to suffer.
But it is not as if every country uses pipelines to transport coal. It is most commonly seen in the United States and in a few in Europe as well. In many countries in Europe, coal is transported by rail, road and waterways, and still they do not witness the kind of pollution from coal dust that is so evident in India.
“And that is because we do not do some simple things that can reduce the emission of coal dust. These days, technology of trucks and their containers is such that nothing can come out of them once packed. But we still use primitive trucks, mostly open. The train wagons on which coal is transported are also open. During transportation, coal is covered with tarpaulin or other sheets but that is not very effective. In addition, the quality of our roads is such that the journey is never smooth. The jerks that trucks receive during the journey are bound to release coal dust,” director of IIT, Goa, B K Mishra said.
Mishra, who has earlier been director of Bhubaneswar-based Council of Scientific and Industrial Research — Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology (CSIR-IMMT), specialises in minerals and metals extraction and in environment and waste treatment.
Express Investigation part 3: All along the road route, the black dust settles
S K Mishra, the current director of the CSIR- IMMT, said effective covering would almost eliminate the problem. “Open railway wagons are preferred by the industry because the closed containers are almost doubly expensive to hire,” he said.
Mathur of TERI said there were other reasons as well why open wagons and open trucks are preferred. “These are easier and faster to load and unload, as compared to closed containers. But frankly, emissions of coal dust during transportation happens due to very poor technical management of the facilities.
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There is no reason why any dust should some out during transportation. We need to ensure better quality covering of coal. It is routine in the rest of the world. Managing pollution at loading and unloading facilities is a little more difficult. It is complicated by the fact that we have a very dry environment,” he said.
The problem of dry air can be tackled by making it mandatory to spray at all handling points so that the dust settles down in pre-defined zones and does not get carried by air to long distances, S K Mishra of CSIR-IMMT said. But he said at least for permanent coal corridors like what Goa has now become, slurry pipeline was still the best solution.
“That is the standard practice in many developed countries. We had a similar problem in transporting iron ore as well. But now we are seeing an increasing number of industries investing in pipelines to transport iron ore,” he said.
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In June this year, JSW Steel, one of the three big players in the Goa coal story, was reported to have announced that it would set up a slurry pipeline to transport both coal and iron ore to its integrated steel plant in Karnataka at a cost of Rs 2100 crore.
However, despite the environmental concerns, it is unlikely that coal producers and consumers in India would rush to shift to pipelines to transport coal, especially in view of the strong push from the government to reduce the country’s dependence on coal, particularly for power generation.
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Though it is widely estimated that coal would remain the mainstay of India’s thermal power generation at least for the next three to four decades, efforts are being made to phase it out much earlier than that. In fact, the draft National Electricity Plan of 2016 clearly says that no additional coal-based power plant would be needed to be set up beyond 2022, after the current set of under-construction projects become operational.
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In such a scenario, companies are unlikely to be inclined to make heavy investments in the pipelines. “The investment pays back over a very long time. And the kind of push that we are now seeing for renewables and alternative sources of energy, I doubt whether companies would be enthusiastic to make these kinds of investments. Banks and lending agencies might also be reluctant to fund such projects because the returns are uncertain,” Mathur of TERI said.