KARACHI: A cluster of coal-fired power plants in the Thar desert, some of which are already operational, could expose around 100,000 people to harmful acidic gases exceeding safe limits established by the World Health Organization and 29,000 people could die from air pollution related causes over the 30-year operating life of the plants, a new study by an independent research organization shows.

The study was released in an online presentation on Friday by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), which describes itself as “an independent research organisation focused on revealing the trends, causes and health impacts, as well as the solutions to air pollution.”

The lead author is Lauri Myllyvirta, whose bio on the CREA’s website says he has “served as a member of the Technical Working Group on regulating emissions from large combustion plants in the EU and currently serves as a member of the expert panel on regulating SO2 [sulphur dioxide] emissions in South Africa.”

The report is titled: “Air quality, health and toxics impacts of the proposed coal mining and power cluster in Thar, Pakistan.”

More than 6,000MW worth of coal-fired power plants are in various stages of development in the country, authors say, of which 3,700MW is to be situated in the Thar desert.

One plant of 660MW capacity has already been commissioned there. “The proposed plants would constitute one of the largest air pollutant, mercury and carbon dioxide (CO2) emission hotspots in South Asia” the report says.

Aside from exposing 100,000 people to dangerously high levels of SO2 and 29,000 to air pollution related fatalities, the power plants complex will also lead to a sprawling array of health related complications.

“Other health impacts include 40,000 asthma emergency room visits, 19,900 new cases of asthma in children, 32,000 preterm births, 20 million days of work absence (sick leave) and 57,000 years lived with disability related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and stroke” the report says.

In addition to this, the power plants will release 1,400kg of mercury per year, “of which one fifth would be deposited on land ecosystems in the region”, the report says. Most of this deposition will be on crop land and increase mercury concentration in the food chain.

Eight coal-based power plants have been commissioned in Pakistan over the last three years, and one small plant has been operational since 1995. Taken together, the nameplate power generating capacity of these plants is 5,090MW, and another eleven plants with a total generating capacity of 6,208MW are still in the pipeline.

Authors also point out that Sindh province, where the bulk of coal-fired capacity is set to be established, already has a poor record of taking air quality seriously.

The Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, for example, does not provide ambient air quality reports routinely and in a transparent manner. Not only that, its Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) are much more relaxed than for the rest of the country or the WHO recommendations. “[W]hile the NEQS sets the PM2.5 limit for 24-hour mean at 35 µg/m3, the SEQS sets it at 75 µg/m3” the report says.

The authors also found serious gaps in how the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)for these plants were done. “Did anyone even read these EIAs during their approval?” the author asked during his presentation.

“The existence of such elementary errors and omissions in the cornerstone data used in the EIAs makes it appear that the reports have not been independently reviewed by the regulator, raising serious questions about the level of regulatory oversight,” the authors say after reviewing all the gaps in the emissions data of the EIAs.

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2020

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