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Next to the coal-fired power plant of Vedanta’s aluminium refinery complex near Jharsuguda in western Odisha, residents stare at ruined farms and poisoned water

Fly ash dumped next to Vedanta Aluminium Captive Power Plant 1 near Jharsuguda, western Odisha, flows into the Bheden River, which joins the Mahanadi River (Photo by Ranjan K. Panda)

Fly ash dumped next to Vedanta Aluminium Captive Power Plant 1 near Jharsuguda, western Odisha, flows into the Bheden River, which joins the Mahanadi River (Photo by Ranjan K. Panda)

Grey muck oozes down a narrow channel between pink-tinged sand, towards a stream on whose banks sit mounds of fly ash. Fingers of the slate grey ash – left after burning coal – inch into the stream that skirts Katikela village. Welcome to the neighbourhood of Vedanta Aluminium Captive Power Plant 1.

From this region of western Odisha near Jharsuguda, the now-grey stream flows into the Bheden River, which joins the Mahanadi, the state’s lifeline.

For years, people across India have experienced such water and air pollution when a coal-fired power plant operates in their neighbourhood. But for residents of Katikela, it got worse.

On the evening of August 28, 2017, one wall of an 83-acre fly ash pond breached. Almost five million tons of toxic ash poured out, covering over 100 acres and then flowing into the river.

Of the 100 acres, 65 had been filled with lush green rice plants, almost ready for harvest. Over 200 farmers lost their crops. Months later, some farms were still covered in several feet of hardened coal ash slurry.

Residents protested at once and locked the main gate of the plant. Then the protests petered out. Farmers who can no longer support their families work as day labourers. Some work for Vedanta, a Britain-based multinational firm engaged primarily in oil, gas and minerals.

Mitravanu Sahu owns land in Katikela village that was not in the path of the fly ash flow. He is now a spokesman for the farmers who lost their land. He says the fly ash slurry engulfed the farmers’ crops in minutes because the wall of the pond was so high — 27 metres, approximately that of an eight-storey building. Had the pond breached in a different spot, he adds, the entire village of Katikela might have been inundated. Many of its 1,500-odd residents could have died.

Farmers say the loss of their crops was a terrible blow; worse is the loss of their land. And even if Vedanta tries to recover the land, they aren’t sure the soil would be healthy. Some families have experienced itching after bathing with the local water. They believe the village ponds they rely on are polluted because the fly ash has leached into groundwater. The farmers have also heard complaints from people downstream about how dirty the river has become.

Susanta Naik, a farmer from Bhagipali, a village adjacent to Katikela, said his house is very close to the fly ash pond that breached. Around 7.30 that evening, his family heard a loud noise, like an explosion, and soon realised the massive structure was breaking open. They watched in fear as the fly ash flowed toward their village, coming as close as 25 metres according to Naik. He echoes his neighbour Sahu’s speculation that if the pond had cracked open at another point in its steep wall, his house would have been washed away with the tons of flowing fly ash.

Pollution control board fails

According to the Odisha Sun Times newspaper, in September 2017 the Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) asked Vedanta Aluminium Ltd to close down its five units in Jharsuguda district. Three of those units were part of the captive power plant next to the village of Katikela. Closing down these power plants—which are “captive” because they power only the aluminium factory—could have temporarily halted the addition of fly ash to the ponds. According to other news reports, there was no space left in the holding ponds in any case. The pond that breached was badly damaged, another was full, and one was under construction. The pollution control board also confirmed severe pollution of the Bheden River, a major tributary of the Mahanadi.

Dilip Behera of OSPCB says that Vedanta complied with the board’s order to cease operations at the Jharsuguda plant. But that compliance was only partial. “We shut down one of the plants temporarily.” Behera added that his “knowledge is they have taken remedial measures” to deal with the excess of fly ash. He said that for the most part large industries in the region are responsible corporate citizens that have adequate systems for controlling pollution; he believes his agency has been successful in overseeing them.

Behera said that farmers’ claims about their water being contaminated was unlikely because the fly ash slurry forms an impermeable layer as it dries, and this prevents extensive leaching. Environmentalist Ranjan Panda disputes this, saying the slurry is very wet when it’s dumped, so leaching does occur.

Critics of OSPCB point out that the board has not enforced regulations that require ponds to be located at least 500 metres away from dwellings. In 2016, OSPCB gave Vedanta permission to increase the height of the pond that breached to 40 metres, exceeding the previously stipulated height of 30 metres.

Lawyer seeks remedies

A lawyer from Jharsuguda, P. Ram Mohan Rao, has been seeking restitution for the farmers. He says Vedanta Aluminium (a division of Vedanta Resources), constructed the ash pond — called “ash pond 2” or “lagoon 2” — illegally. The pond that breached in August 2017 was less than 100 metres from village homes, he points out.

Rao also says the 800-metre-wide breach in the second pond’s embankment has not been repaired properly, though Vedanta continues to deposit ash there. Nor has there been any attempt to clear the heaps of fly ash near the river. Instead, more is being deposited each day. “They are creating mountains of ash,” he says.

Rao says the ash should have been taken to brick kilns, but Vedanta was in a hurry and failed to dispose of it properly, ignoring regulations that govern the handling of fly ash. The ash is toxic to farmland and water bodies and can diminish air quality, but properly handled it’s a useful by-product of coal combustion. It has cementing properties and is useful for making bricks and macadam for the thousands of buildings and roads under construction at all times in India.

Current regulations set by India’s central government require complete reuse of fly ash within four years for holding structures built before 2008, and within three years for those built after 2008. If fly ash is properly reused, it would help preserve sand, whose mining from riverbeds is a major problem all over the country.

Rao has been fighting the farmers’ case in India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT), since filing it in May 2018; the first hearing took place in August 2018. The court instructed OSPCB to order Vedanta to clean an 18 km stretch of the Bheden River contaminated by fly ash. As of September 2018, Vedanta had cleared only 2.5 km and there has apparently been little or no progress since. The NGT was scheduled to hold a final hearing on January 9 to decide damages.  Instead, dissatisfied with the pollution control board’s testimony about the clean-up of the river, the tribunal appointed a one-man commission to investigate the river pollution. It also asked Vedanta to submit a report by February 14 on the steps taken by the company. The NGT is now scheduled to pronounce its decision on February 26.

Vedanta’s compensation to farmers

The farmers affected by the fly ash have received cash compensation from Vedanta based on the recommendation of Odisha’s Rehabilitation and Peripheral Development Advisory Committee (RPDAC) – most have received INR 50,000 (USD 700) per acre.

Vedanta spokesman Sanjeev Patnaik says the company has compensated 95% of the landowners for the loss of their crops. He says that “out of a total impacted area of 115 acres, 70 acres is ours and additional 13.45 acres has been purchased. We are in discussion with other landowners for purchase.”

Some farmers fear Vedanta aims to buy their damaged land at distress rates, and set up more fly ash lagoons there. Even before the fly ash pond breached, the company was trying to acquire land polluted by daily deposits of dust from the plant.

Some farmers want more than cash compensation. They want the whole village to be relocated together, not only to maintain long-standing community ties but because they fear another breach. They point out that the village school is cheek by jowl with a factory chimney and that many acres are now covered in toxic ash.

Regarding pollution of the Bheden River, Patnaik says Vedanta “has constructed 14 check dams to obstruct flow of ash” into the river, and that the ash accumulated at those check dams “is being removed on a continuous basis.”

But it is not just Bheden; Odisha’s lifeline the Mahanadi River is in serious trouble.

Next: The wounded Mahanadi

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