Ash Dam Damaged, Power Supply to Five States Hit

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KORBA (Chhattisgarh): It has reported that, a collapsed concrete wall has had ripple effects across five states. For nearly a month, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa are coping with reduced power supply after a damaged fly ash dam in Korba has grounded power generation at four units of National Thermal Power Company (NTPC).

How cracks in a wall can disrupt power supply to five states, activists say, contains a cautionary tale of the limits of thermal power, which demands not just more coal, but more land to dump its waste. While the waste is expanding, land availability is shrinking.

Take the case of Dhanras village. Not too far from the bright lights of NTPC’s Korba power station, a bleak wasteland of grey extends in an endless and forbidding expanse above the village. Here, a maze of pipelines disgorges slurry saturated with fly ash over four and half sq kms of raised ground enclosed within high embankment walls.

Fly ash is a powdery grey hazardous by-product that emerges when coal is burnt to produce power. Deposited in the form of slurry at Dhanras, NTPC’s only ash dam site, it dries into layers of grey dust, as an industrial sized sieve, consisting of an inclined wall called spillway, separates the ash from water. While layers of ash accumulate on top, the water collects in a pond below.

In the first week of September, as torrential rains pelted down, the heaps of ash at Dhanras acquired the force of floods, cracking the spillway wall. The pond water overflowed and contaminated nearby paddy fields.

The company was forced to stop fly ash disposal to prevent more spillage. With no alternative site for ash disposal, production in four units came to grinding halt. For the first time in three decades, production at NTPC’s Korba station has dipped to just 200 MW. “Due to heavy rain again on 16 th and 17 th of September, spillway has further got damaged,” said Ashutosh Nayak, NTPC’s spokesperson.

While the company blames heavy rains for the damage and disruption, activists point out that this was an impending crisis rooted in the company’s excessive dumping of fly ash in one place.

“While NTPC has been adding power generating capacity, it is not adding new areas for ash disposal,” says Laxmi Chauhan of the Korba based environmental group Sarthak. In December 2010, Chauhan wrote to Chhattisgarh enviroment minister Rajesh Munnat, raising alarm over NTPC being given permission to start a new unit of 500 MW without establishing a new ash dam. “The carrying capacity of the existing ash dam is over,” his letter stated.

However, three months later, in March 2011, NTPC commissioned the new unit, raising its power capacity to 2600 MW, and the production of fly ash to 5.6 million metric tonne per annum. All headed for the existing fly ash dam at Dhanras. “Naturally, the ash dam could not take the pressure and collapsed in the rains,” says Chauhan.

The company acknowledges it is facing a problem finding fresh land for ash disposal. “Due to delay in land acquisition, construction of new ash dam got delayed,” the company spokesperson said in his response.

Incidentally, the proposed site for the new ash dam is right next to the existing one at Dhanras, in five villages of Churikala panchayat, where farmers are locked in multiple agitations. Apart from NTPC, they are resisting the projects of two private power companies. “Every summer, whirlwinds of ash billow and poison our fields, our homes, our lives. Why should we pay such a high price for power for the rest of the country?” said Vinod Pandey, a resident of Churikala and a petitioner in a High Court case against the power companies.

Korba is the fifth most critically polluted area in India, according to 2009 study of the Central Pollution Control board. “With 6000 MW installed capacity, and seven power companies, Korba generates 48000 metric tonnes of fly ash every day, and one lakh metric tonnes every year,” says B S Thakur, the government officer incharge of monitoring environmental compliance. “It is a major problem with no easy solutions”.

Source: The Times of India

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