Sepa approves coal storage project amid serious environmental concerns

Published August 15, 2019
ONE of the two illegal stockpiles of coal which have emerged recently in Karachi’s Bin Qasim Town.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
ONE of the two illegal stockpiles of coal which have emerged recently in Karachi’s Bin Qasim Town.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: Ignoring court directives and its own law that calls for subjecting a project likely to cause adverse effect to a process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) followed by a public review, the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) recently granted approval to a coal storage facility, sources told Dawn.

The environmental watchdog, sources said, approved the 23-acre coal storage project on the basis of an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE), a preliminary environmental review meant for projects with no significant adverse impacts which requ­i­res no public review.

Located in Bin Qasim Town’s area of Deh Ghangiyaro, the project was prop­osed by the Pakistan Inte­rnational Bulk Terminal (PIBT) — which is presently handling the country’s largest quantity of coal of about 8m tonnes at its jetty out of a total of 20m tonnes the country is importing annually.

Sources said that the PIBT was operating with a storage facility of one million tonnes planned expansion following the 2018 decision of the Supreme Court, which restrained coal imports at the Karachi Port Trust as it lacked a system to safely handle and store coal consignments.

The court directed importers to use PIBT solely dedicated with a mechanised system to handle coal, cement and clinker. More than two dozen companies are reportedly engaged in coal imports.

Law that calls for such projects to pass through environmental impact assessment has been ignored

“We also direct all the authorities in Karachi that open coal shall not be stored anywhere in the city of Karachi. It should only be stored in warehouses and if transported, proper blankets and moisture should be provided to the coal so that the dust should not spread in the air and cause pollution,” the June 2018 order reads.

After this decision, according to lawyer Zubair Abro, storage of coal and its handling became a project that falls in the category K (2) of Schedule II of Sepa 2014 regulations, which calls for an EIA of all projects that may cause adverse impacts.

An EIA, he argued, would also provide an opportunity to all stakeholders including local residents of the area to raise their concerns related to the project.

Controversial decisions

It is important to mention here that Sepa has often been accused of approving projects requiring an EIA through an IEE.

In one such case in 2014, the environmental watchdog approved a traffic improvement plan through an IEE.

“But, the high court in a much celebrated decision interpreting Schedule I & II of the 2014 Sepa regulations had held that if a project falls in both schedules an EIA would be carried out to achieve the purpose of the environmental law,” Mr Abro recalled.

He also referred to some other pending cases in which the Sindh High Court had directed the KPT and a coal handler to carry out two separate EIAs on coal handling, emphasising that Sepa violated its own act and that the approval (to the project) must be cancelled.

Upon contact, Sepa deputy director Munir Ahmed Abbasi justified its decision, arguing that the project was (only) of a warehouse and could have been approved (under Schedule III) through a ‘check-list’.

“But, we didn’t do that because of environmental concerns related to coal. That’s why we asked the proponent to prepare an IEE report, which was reviewed by an expert committee and approval was granted.” He also cited several conditions Sepa had attached to the approval, including an environmental management plan, to ensure that coal was safely handled and stored at the facility.

When contacted, the PIBT declined to share any specific details of the new storage facility.

Illegal coal dumps

After the court’s decision allowing coal imports only through the PIBT, the number of illegal stockpiles of coal earlier restricted to district South in the city has increased dramatically.

Sources said that this was done by coal importing companies to cut costs as the PIBT had a limited coal storage facility for 15 days only, for which they charged.

The areas where hazardous consignments of coal were dumped in open over the past one year included Landhi, Bhains Colony, Razzaqabad and a site near Rehri Goth.

Recent information gathered from different sources indicate that while most of these sites have either been cleared of coal or relevant companies served notices by Sepa, illegal stockpiles of coal have now appeared at two locations in Deh Ghangiyaro.

A recent visit to this specific area, located within one kilometre of PIBT and an under construction coal-fired power plant, showed that coal was being dumped close to a residential area at one site.

The particular site was also being used as a dumping site for coal residues.

“Yes, at times the air is heavy with coal dust, making breathing difficult,” said a woman, whose house was located just few yards away from the coal dumps.

She identified the locality as ‘Gulshan-i-Iqra’ and, according to her, coal stockpiles had appeared two months back there.

Sharing his concerns over Sepa’s decision and dumping of coal in open, Saquib Ejaz Hussain, a senior environmentalist, said the manner in which coal and coal combustion residues were being handled in open in the city and the consequent destruction of environment (through air and marine pollution) had severely compromised the basic rights of citizens.

“Handling of coal is a sensitive public interest matter that needs a detailed environmental impact assessment followed by a public review,” he said, adding that the court had given clear directives on coal matters and Sepa’s decision was tantamount to contempt of court.

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2019

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