Lying somewhere at the bottom of the stack of thousands of cases pending before the Supreme Court is an appeal filed by the residents of the villages of the Thar desert whose lives and livelihoods have been threatened by disposal on their lands of highly toxic water being pumped out during coal mining.
The water is being disposed of at two effluent water disposal sites in Gorano and Dukar Cho villages, located some 30km away from the mines and outside the area allotted to the mining company for carrying out its activities.
The petition is seeking environmental justice through re-examination and reversal of a decision of the Sindh High Court that accepts the dubious right of the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) to dispose of the effluent water and forcible acquisition of the community lands for this purpose.
The case is simple. The country’s top court has to ascertain if the mining company, a joint venture of the Sindh government with Engro Energy Ltd backed by other investors, had carried out the mandatory Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the disposal of toxic water in Gorano and Dukar Cho villages.
The court is also to determine if the provincial government’s acquisition of the community lands on behalf of the company under the provincial land acquisition act for the effluent water disposal sites is for public purposes — the basis for such land acquisitions.
SECMC says the company abides by international standards of environmental stewardship
Disposal of water harvested from coal mines has always been a major issue due to its potential environmental impact, according to Hassan Abbas, a water expert from Karachi who has done a lot of work on the impact of toxic water being discharged in the effluent disposal sites.
“The water being pumped out of the coal mines is 40-42 million years old and must have absorbed all kinds of chemicals. It, therefore, is harmful to human and animal consumption, as well as destructive for plant life,” he says.
Leela Ram, a community leader and lawyer who is leading the legal battle for the protection of the rights of the local populations, says the seepage of poisonous water is destroying the local underground freshwater sources due to which the life and livelihoods of the communities are being adversely affected. Furthermore, the dumping of effluent water is also adversely and irreparably affecting the environment, wildlife and fauna of the affected areas.
The affected population also contends that their land was forcibly acquired by the administration for the coal mining company. “The applicable land acquisition laws provide a detailed mechanism for acquisition of land in which the rights of the owners of land and their right to fair compensation is guaranteed. In rare cases of emergency need, the administration can invoke emergency provisions of law.
However, as a prerequisite, the reasons for an emergency have to be written, the legality of which can be judicially reviewed. In the case of land acquisition in Tharparkar for the coal mining process, emergency provisions were invoked by the land acquisition officers without any rationale. The land was forcefully taken from the villagers under the land acquisition act, denying them the right to challenge the process,“ says a person who is helping the affected communities in their legal battle.
The communities had filed a petition before the Sindh High Court in June 2016, highlighting the violation of their constitutionally protected fundamental rights as well as inaction by the Sindh Environment Protection Agency against the environmentally destructive consequences of effluent water disposal.
The petitioners also presented water testing reports as evidence that the groundwater contained dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals, which are prohibited under the laws of Sindh due to seepage of water being disposed of on their land.
The court had formed a commission to investigate the complaints, but it didn’t engage with the affected people and submitted a report favouring the coal mining company. The community representatives filed detailed objections before the court against the commission’s report. But these objections were not considered, and the petition was dismissed in May this year, holding the effluent disposal sites to be legal.
The petitioners contend that the judgment does not address the contentions of the community challenging land acquisition through invocation of emergency provisions or the need for effluent disposal sites to be assessed under environmental laws.
The petitioners insist the mining company had not carried out an environmental impact assessment of the effluent disposal sites, which is a prerequisite for such schemes. The EIA is crucial to assess the potential environmental impact of a scheme and impose measures to minimise and correct that impact.
Mr Ram contends that failing to get EIA renders the sites patently illegal. He says the disposal of untreated toxic water has affected nearly 20,000 people living in Gorano and 11 other villages. “The dirty, untreated and toxic water has seeped into groundwater and poisoned fresh water wells, which is severely affecting the health of the villagers and their livestock, and destroyed agricultural activity in the area.”
When reached, a spokesperson for the company said SECMC abides by the highest standards of environmental stewardship. “We are fully compliant with Environmental Protection Act/Sindh Environmental Act IEE-EIA Regulations 2000 and Sindh Coal Mine Rules 2016. We also voluntarily adopt various international standards such as International Finance Corporation (IFC) — Guidelines for Monitoring Parameters amongst others,” he says.
“The Gorano reservoir is declared a unique wetland by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is serving as a habitat ecosystem for various species of fish and birds in the region. The water being dewatered to Gorano is neither treated nor effluent and is natural groundwater that is not brine. There has been no contamination from water abstraction and disposal operations for Block II, and, in fact, water has often been pumped by nearby villagers for agricultural purposes, too.”
He adds: “SECMC has installed 17 reverse osmosis (RO) plants across different villages, which provide 800,000 gallons of clean drinking water to the communities around and benefit the lives of over 40,000 residents of Thar Block II and adjoining areas.”
According to Mr Ram, initially, the mining company planned to dispose of the toxic water in a village near the border with India, which is 70-80km from the mine. “Later, it changed the plan because of the costs involved and forcibly acquired 1,500 acres of land around Gorano to convert it into an effluent water disposal site.
“The company hasn’t obtained the EIA for effluent water reservoirs in Gorano and adjacent areas. Likewise, the Sindh government had insisted that it was acquiring land for the effluent water reservoir under the Land Acquisition Act for public purposes.
“What is the public purpose in acquiring land for a private company and using it for disposal of highly toxic water unfit for human and animal consumption and highly detrimental to agriculture in the area? Now you tell me where the public interest is in all this?” he asks.
Mr Abbas also raises this issue. “The reservoir for dumping poisonous water is built on common grazing lands, which the government has acquired for the mining company. Even if we agree with the argument that it has acquired common lands for public purposes, where’s the right of people on that land? The government has acquired the land for investors and not for the public.”
He says the disposal of toxic water is destroying the land and pastures, affecting human and animal health by poisoning freshwater wells through seepage into groundwater.
“It is not a sustainable model. Whatever water is disposed of this way either evaporates into the atmosphere or seeps into the ground. The evaporation makes water seeping into the ground even more poisonous due to the increased concentration of toxins in it.
“The micro-conductivity probe of groundwater in 2017 showed the concentration of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) to be 4000 microSiemens per centimetre (μS/cm). Now, it has increased to 10000 μS/cm.
“Water containing TDS above 700 μS/cm is unfit for drinking according to the World Health Organisation standards. The mining company isn’t treating
the toxic water before its disposal because of the expense on its profits. In other words, the environmental cost of coal mining is not being paid by the company and its shareholders from their profits; it is being borne by the local communities,“ he concludes.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 2nd, 2023