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A slow motion Chernobyl disaster

Coal is an unforgiving servant as it exacts its proverbial ‘pound of flesh’ from its masters.

To begin with, mined coal needs to be washed of impurities which produce a fantastic amount of coal sludge (slurry) that in turn needs a dam for storage. This sludge contains mercury, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, nickel and selenium, all harmful for people and ecology. Little wonder that people affected by the dam now being established near Ghorano village in Thar are vehemently but futilely protesting.

After creating so many hazardous toxins during mining, coal doesn’t become benevolent, rather it becomes more vicious, especially when used in power plants. Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels. Per kilogram, it produces the least amount of energy and the most amount of pollution.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists a typical coal plant (500 megawatts) annually generates the following amounts of air pollutants:

  • 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), an amount equivalent to chopping down 161 million trees. CO2 pollution is the principal human cause of global warming and climate change.
  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain and forms small airborne particles that can cause lung damage, heart disease and other illnesses.
  • 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), equivalent to half a million late-model cars. NOx leads to formation of smog, which inflames lung tissue and increases susceptibility to respiratory illness.
  • 500 tons of small airborne particles, which can cause bronchitis, reductions in lung function and premature death.
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons, which contribute to smog.
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), which causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart disease.
  • 170 pounds of mercury. 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited in a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat. Mercury also causes learning disabilities, brain damage, and neurological disorders.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, which leads to cancer in 1 out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.
  • Also 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium and other toxic heavy metals which can accumulate in human and animal tissue and cause serious health problems including mental retardation and damage to nervous system. Plus solid waste of 120,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of coal sludge.

A Green Peace report using sophisticated health impact assessment model estimated that pollution from coal-fired power plants in EU resulted in thousands of premature deaths and shortened the lives of Europeans by an estimated total of 240,000 lost life years in 2010 alone.

These detrimental effects of coal fired power plants forced China to shut them down and the last Beijing thermal power plant was shuttered this 18th March.

This being the balance sheet of coal fired power plants only a country seriously bent upon inflicting grievous self injury would consider setting up two plants of 660 MW each and that to at Gaddani only fifty kilometers from Karachi. To understand the impact of these plants one has only to multiply the above stated pollution figures by 2.5 and then consider the devastation in store for air, land, sea ecology and the life there and its environs. It is a slow acting nuclear meltdown having irreversible ill effect for eons to come; it is a slow motion Chernobyl disaster scenario.

The China Power Hub Generation Company (CPHGC), a joint venture company between Hubco and China Power International Holding Limited (CPIH) claim that their US $2 billion Gaddani power plants will utilize state-of-the-art supercritical technology to generate low-cost electricity with maximum efficiency. If this state-of-the-art supercritical technology was in fact so efficient why was it not used in power plants near Beijing?

Although Pakistan government’s policy was for disallowing power plants based on imported coal after October 14, 2016 but imported coal will be used in these plants as these are part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects and therefore exempted. Where the coal will come from is anybody’s guess.

The pollution that coal fired plants bring in their wake is as yet impalpable for present and therefore doesn’t seem worrisome except to people who will be immediately affected by its debilating impact. In March last year a so-called public hearing between locals and Hubco officials (reported by Shazia Hasan in Dawn March 29th, 2016) had brought out much rancour and bitterness of locals who accused Hubco of reneging on past promises and didn’t expect it to keep new ones.

The Baloch have a bitter experience of broken promises — be they political, economic or environmental. Litigation and pleas of Baghalchur, which provided the uranium for fateful Chagai nuclear tests, residents in Dera Ghazi Khan to stop polluting their area with nuclear waste have gone unheard. So expecting Hubco to keep promises is futile.

Apart from the pollution factor; the cost for security of CPEC will be borne by consumers as the federal government arbitrarily decided that the capital cost of all CPEC power projects under construction would be raised by 1percent to pay for the running cost of the CPEC security force. So it is you who will be paying to have your life years shortened; a double whammy of fatal proportions indeed.

About Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

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Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur is a regular commenter on Balochistan. He has been associated with Baloch politics since 1970s.

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