Mishandling coal

Published May 9, 2018

IT seems that even moving towards a 19th-century technology is too challenging a task for the government to manage.

Handling coal in the kinds of quantities needed for power generation is a huge logistical exercise that requires large investments in rail and port facilities. Ensuring that the supply chain remains environmentally sound, however, is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, as reported by this paper, the authorities at Karachi’s Port Qasim, where shipments of imported coal land for onward transportation to Sahiwal, have failed to fulfil even the rudimentary requirements of environmental protection.

The port has begun operating its coal handling without a green signal from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency. To make matters worse, the authorities are handling massive quantities of coal in open containers, and the process of transferring these loads from ship to rail is causing large quantities of coal dust to fly around. This poses a serious risk to all workers, infrastructure and industrial units located at or near the port.

While conceding that the concerns are valid, port authorities have indicated that the project was rushed through. According to reports, the power plant that is served by the coal shipments landing here had its commercial operations date pushed forward. But that should not prevent them from completing the formalities, and ensuring the safe and environmentally sound handling of coal subsequent to the start of operations.

According to the letter sent by Sepa to Port Qasim, the coal terminal has been built on berths that were not even designed for the purpose. Managing tens of thousands of tons of coal on a regular basis for the power plants was never going to be a straightforward exercise for a country that has virtually zero experience when it comes to large-scale coal handling. The task requires very careful management in order to prevent pollutants from covering the area.

Disposing of the ash after combustion in the power plants is another crucial challenge, and one can only wonder how much care the authorities at the power plant in Sahiwal are taking in carrying out their responsibility there. Coal is always dirty business, whether it is a question of its handling, combustion or disposal.

Quite clearly, the government has grossly underestimated the scale of the responsibility that falls upon it to minimise coal’s harmful impact on the people and the ecology.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2018

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