Unsafe coal handling degrades environment, puts industrial units at risk

Updated May 07, 2018

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Coal being transported in open bogies in the Port Qasim area.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Coal being transported in open bogies in the Port Qasim area.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: The Port Qasim Authority (PQA) has allowed major coal handling operations in its jurisdiction with complete disregard for public health and environmental safety, and without waiting for a decision by the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) on the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.

These points have been raised in a letter Sepa has sent recently to the chairman of the Port Qasim Authority (PQA) and the project developer, Huaneng Fuyun Port and Shipping (Pvt) Ltd.

Sources say that it is the third time Sepa has raised concerns over this project whose EIA it did not approve in 2016 and the project developer was asked to remove ‘deficiencies’ in the report.

“We are further disappointed by the fact that instead of receiving a response from you, Huaneng Fuyun Port and Shipping (Pvt) Ltd and PQA have rushed through the project in utter disregard for the provisions of Sindh Environmental Protection Act 2014,”says a Sepa letter dated April 24.

The operation going on for over a year without Sepa’s approval involved unloading of coal from motherships, its transfer to small vessels, its dumping in a yard and then transportation to Sahiwal through a rail link for a 1320MG power plant, a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

Contaminating products

Speaking to Dawn, visitors to the area said that transportation, lifting and dumping of coal in the absence of any safety measures had badly affected the area, particularly the nearby offices.

“The whole area remains covered in a thick blanket of coal dust all day, making breathing extremely difficult. The road being used to transport coal and the area’s plantation have been ruined by coal dust and spillage,” a person hired for some work in the area told Dawn on condition of anonymity.

This continuing environmental disaster also poses risk to the safe operation of many industrial units running in the area including food processing, pharmaceutical and chemical units, water purification units, edible and crude oil facilities, refineries and automobile manufacturing units.

Their representatives, however, refused to talk on record as they feared a backlash from the PQA on whose land they had their assets on.

Second, they said, law-enforcement agencies monitoring the area could trouble them later as the Sahiwal project was part of the CPEC.

No action against the project developer or PQA has been taken by Sepa so far, not even an inspection of the affected area.

According to media reports, the first consignment of 43,999 tonnes of coal imported from South Africa for the trial operations of Sahiwal Coal Power Plant was unloaded at Port Qasim in January last year.

These reports also show that the Sahiwal coal fired project was made operational much ahead of its scheduled time which explains the haste shown in making the Port Qasim project functional as it aimed at providing fuel to the $1.8bn Sahiwal project.

To question how unsafe coal handling could affect public health and environment, Saquib Ejaz Hussain explained that degraded airshed might subject Karachiites to unacceptably high pollution levels and health risks that may arise from contamination of products being processed in the affected area.

“It may also negatively affect production costs and discourage new or expanding businesses. The approach to wait until a problem develops can result in the need for costly retrofit solutions.”

Coal dust covers a plant leaf.
Coal dust covers a plant leaf.

A controversial project

Titled Coal Transshipment Project at Berth 3 and 4 of Port Qasim, the project aimed at transforming the existing berths three and four of Port Qasim into a specialised coal handling/transshipment facility. Its EIA report was presented in a public hearing in September 2016.

The project, sources said, was controversial from day one on account of serious environmental and technical concerns.

Highlighting these concerns, the four-page Sepa letter says, “The coal terminal at berth three and four were never part of PQA master plan and seem to have been included as an ad hoc arrangement. All ad hoc arrangements have a large footprint on environment and social values of society and as such their desirability and legality is questionable.

“The EIA document of the project has totally ignored the establishment of Pakistan International Bulk Terminal that’s the only coal terminal designated in the PQA master plan and has the capacity to meet the requirements of coal handling up to 20m tonnes of coal.

“In our opinion, the project shouldn’t have been considered by the PQA to start with. This also shows that the project is being thrust upon the sustainability of Karachi’s coastal area at the cost of development in Punjab.

“The coal terminal at berth three and four is negatively impacting the assets in the neighbourhood and along the route on which there is a considerable stake of the members of Bin Qasim Association of Trade and Industry,” the letter says.

On environmental concerns, it points out: “It is also a matter of concern that coal is being dumped at marginal wharves 3 and 4 without any environmental control measures and without waiting for the decision of Sepa on [the project’s] EIA [report].

“There are a number of sensitive units around berth 3 and 4, all of them maintain air-conditioned units and suck air into their system. The airshed [of the industrial zone] has already reached a saturation point with regard to primary pollutants particularly particulate matter. Exceeding the limit of saturation will be at the cost of the processing units which need to be free of any amount and size of dust.”

The letter once again reminds the PQA and the Chinese developer of ‘deficiencies’ in the EIA report, including lack of data on environmental audit.

“The EIA report should have [also] assessed the cumulative impact of all the coal-related projects which have been approved by Sepa to estimate the impact of coal handling on such a large scale in PQA,” it says.

Upon contact, PQA chairman Asaf Rafi Chandana, who has taken charge of the authority two weeks ago, said that he recently visited the site, met stakeholders and found that there had been genuine concerns regarding handling and transportation of coal causing environment degradation and pollution.

“The management has taken cognizance of the issue and issued clear instructions to operators to adopt all mitigation measures. The National Engineering Services Pakistan (the project’s consultants) has been asked to assist operators in getting an NOC from Sepa,” he said.

To question why the berths were made operational without Sepa approval, he explained that after the project’s public hearing, the environmental watchdog formed an expert committee to propose mitigating measures.

“Subsequently, the report was improved, incorporating all recommendations to ensure safe environment. Owing to the prevailing energy crises in the country and delays in receiving the NOC from Sepa, the project was made operational in national interest,” he said.

About violation to PQA’s master plan, Mr Chandana insisted that marginal wharf berths 3 and 4 were part of the master plan as multipurpose jetties and coal was being handled manually on these berths since 1978.

“The two berths have a restricted use only for self-use power plants whereas the PIBT meant for commercial purpose cargo.

“The PQA has signed an agreement for conversion of berths 3 and 4 into self-use coal terminal, which has been designed and developed as per international standard. Hence, there was no violation of PQA’s master plan.”

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2018