KARACHI: The Karachi Port Trust’s Keamari coal terminal operating in violation of environmental laws poses serious threat to public health, a visit to the site showed on Saturday.
Enveloped in dark dust, the entire place with blackened streets, shops, mosques, historical buildings and other infrastructure was an evidence how the pollutant had ruined the port area once thriving with business and tourist activities.
“Look at our faces and clothes. Can you believe that I had worn a clean dress in the morning?” said a fruit vendor, pointing to his clothes.
According to another person, the number of people suffering from respiratory diseases in the locality had increased dramatically over the past 10 to 12 years when the coal terminal had started its operation.
“And it’s not just Keamari residents who are being affected. People living on nearby islands also inhale polluted air and fall sick when the wind starts blowing towards their towns in the winter,” said Abdullah, a Keamari resident.
The place, he said, was used to be popular with local and foreign visitors who came in droves to see the nearby islands. But now even local people had stopped visiting the place.
“Nobody likes to breathe in polluted air and spoil clothes,” he said, adding that improper handling and transport of coal had seriously affected life and livelihood of the people living in the vicinity.
What added to their troubles, according to him, were rashly driven dumpers whose numbers had significantly increased in recent months and, at times, the coal terminal operated even on holidays.
One could see partially covered dumpers spilling coal while they transported it from the vessels to the yard where it was kept in the open.
Terminal workers Dawn spoke to said that they were directly exposed to coal and no safety gadgets were provided to them.
“I get Rs500 per day for a 10-hour job and that is to clean coal dust from the road,” said Abdur Rehman, a recently employed worker whose face was blackened with coal dust.
Area residents have protested many times against the authorities over the operation of the coal terminal and demanded that it be shifted away.
“One of our colleagues also lost his life during a demonstration but all has gone in vain. Historical buildings such as the Karachi Port Trust tower built in 1913 and the Cowasjee building are also being destroyed by the heavy pollution at the site,” said Murtaza, a social activist working with the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.
On the impact of coal dust on health, executive director for research and development services, Saquib Ejaz Hussain said that coal dust added to a range of health problems, including respiratory illness, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.
“Fine particles penetrate deeply into the lungs and are difficult for the body to expel. Over time these particles accumulate and do more damage. Epidemiological research suggests that there is no threshold at which health effects do not occur,” he said.
According to him, experts recognised (particulate matter) PM2.5 from the coal dust as a major air pollutant and health hazard.
Violation of law
Replying to questions on coal terminal’s operation, director general of the Sindh Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) Naeem Ahmed Mughal said that though he had ‘informal knowledge’ about the terminal, the KPT was operating the facility in violation of law as the organisation had never sought approval for the project from the provincial department.
“The KPT is violating both the federal and provincial environmental laws. No Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report has ever been submitted to us. I will visit the site with my staff soon and examine the ground situation. The KPT will be asked to provide details on the terminal’s operation,” Mr Mughal claimed.
Another important factor, he said, was to know the companies that were importing coal and its use. “These companies are also required to have Sepa’s approval for processing coal,” he said.
Giving the KPT’s version, its public relations officer Shafique Faridi said the organisation had carried out a number of steps to ensure safe coal handling and transportation.
“We have carried out plantation near the terminal area, besides building a protected wall to prevent spread of flying dust. Water is also sprinkled on the coal to reduce air pollution.
“The KPT is considering two options to make the terminal operation safe; first is to build a conveyor belt from the vessel up to the yard and discard use of dumpers and the other is to shift the terminal to the site where deep water container terminal is being built and dedicate two berths for this purpose at the site that would be connected to a railway link.”
Regarding the use of safety gadgets and unsafe transport of coal in dumpers, he said that terminal workers were not under direct control of the KPT and were hired by different private companies. The organisation, however, monitored their activities and fined the companies violating the safety rules.
As for open storage of coal, he said that most developing countries were using the same method for storing coal as it was considered safe.
About 10,000 to 15,000 tonnes of coal, he said, was being brought daily at the port from different countries, including Australia, Indonesia and African states. It was largely meant for use in cement factories and now for plants generating electricity.
“The government decision to use coal for electricity generation in the country will increase the scale of terminal operation,” he said.
On Sepa’s approval for setting up a coal terminal, he said the company importing coal needed to submit an EIA report for processing coal and not the KPT.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2014