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KARACHI: How inaptly the government deals with mega projects of ‘national importance’ came to light on Tuesday when strong opposition from stakeholders at a public hearing forced the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) to reject the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report of a Rs13 billion project and order its new evaluation.

Described as a “recipe for environmental disaster” by most speakers, the project is aimed to build a 4.5-kilomtres-long coal conveying system and a coal yard in the north-western industrial zone of Port Qasim.

It was approved by a federal cabinet committee after the railway authorities informed the government that the present railway network in the Port Qasim area could not be extended to the Pakistan International Bulk Terminal (PIBT) because of some “technical issues”. The terminal is being constructed mainly to import huge quantities of coal for use in coal-based development projects upcountry.

Some of the most convincing arguments against the project awarded to the Port Qasim Authority (PQA) included the fact that the presentation on the EIA report had no mention of the technical grounds on which the railway officials had discarded the option to extend the rail network, which, according to speakers, was the safest and cheapest option for transporting coal.

The explanation by a railway official later during the course of the meeting that “steep gradient and interface issues” had led to drop the idea of extending the rail network did not satisfy the audience who argued that there were ways to handle steep gradient and in today’s age an efficient railway system could be developed anywhere.

Second, the EIA report was not only flawed, as experts challenged its data and questioned how the project’s water needs (30,000 gallons per day) would be met, it also violated the master plans of the PQA and the PIBT which did not have provision for a conveyer belt but rather for a railway link to transport coal.

“Apart from environmental concerns, legal issues are also attached to the project. The PIBT’s EIA report approved by Sepa a few years ago has no provision for a conveyor system. Unless, Sepa cancels that EIA approval and approves a new one, it couldn’t proceed with the present EIA report,” said Zubair Abro, a lawyer specialising in environmental issues.

Thirdly, the EIA was conducted by the same firm which developed the project’s design, which, speakers pointed out, compromised the principles of transparency and fairness. They stressed that Sepa should devise a mechanism to carry out an independent EIA of projects.

‘No consultation’

The project consultants and proponent had to face a barrage of criticism from participants representing a range of industrial units from automobiles, pharmaceuticals to food, who claimed that they were not taken on board at all during the EIA process.

“These industries have their assets on this land. None of them would have come here if they were told by the government that it would build a coal conveyor system and coal yard here,” said a representative of the Bin Qasim Association of Trade and Industry, adding that 70 to 80 factories on both sides of the proposed project would be affected by coal emissions.

Concerns were particularly raised over the authenticity of the data on air quality (in the EIA report) and it was said that no 24-hour monitoring had been carried out for the exercise as required under the guidelines.

“The data was collected for only a few hours but modelled for the whole year, which is in total violation of the pre-requisites of air quality modelling. Besides, the data represented the emissions from only one stockpile whereas there are eight stockpiles to be built under the project,” noted Saquib Ejaz Hussain, an expert on environment and air quality.

He added that total emission would be around 1176 µg/m3 which would be a total violation of the Sindh Environmental Quality Standards.

According to him, the project would spell a disaster for nearby residents, particularly Shah Latif Town, on account of coal dust emissions.

Earlier, a presentation on the project design and the EIA report was presented by Riazul Huda and Syed Ali Sher Shah of Nespak.

They told the audience that no additional coal was coming through the project and the enclosed coal conveyor linking the PIBT to the existing railway network was exclusively meant to lift coal from the PIBT.

Under the project, 200 acres adjacent to the existing rail track would be acquired from the Pakistan Steel Mills for conveyor construction.

It was stated that the initial handling capacity of PIBT was 8million tonnes that would be increased up to 12m tonnes. Approximately, 44,000 tonnes of coal could be stored in the yard from where it would be lifted in a short time for upcountry destination.

“The elevated coal conveying system would be operated in a manner that wouldn’t obstruct normal port activities,” Mr Huda said, adding that the Japan International Cooperation Agency had also selected the same route for setting up the conveyor belt as suggested by the firm.

The EIA report recommended a number of measures for environmental safeguard that included inbuilt dust control systems at transfer stations, wind-breaker wall, dust suppression wall and water sprinkler system at the coal stockyard.

Answering questions, PQA Director General-Technical Shabbir Anwar Qazi said that the proposed project was similar to what was developed at the Brisbane Port in Australia.

The government, he said, was investing billions only to safeguard public interests and would install state-of-the-art machinery.

Among other things, Sepa DG Naeem Ahmed Mughal asked the PQA to carry out a cumulative study on the impact coal-based development projects would have in the Port Qasim area and make efforts to set up a waste treatment plant in its jurisdiction.

“Improve your corporate social responsibility policy so that local communities could develop a trust on you and benefit from development,” he observed.

Published in Dawn October 26th, 2016