February 22, 2020
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The Scorched Earth

A deluge of fly ash from the Nalco plant ash toxifies Angul, Orissa

The Scorched Earth
It was supposed to be a 'safe' industrial unit, had even won many environmental safety awards, until the ugly truth literally spilled out. And left dazed villagers in its wake. The populace of at least 23 villages surrounding the National Aluminium Company's (Nalco) Alumina Smelter Plant and Captive Power Plant at Angul in central coastal Orissa is still reeling from the flash flood triggered off when the company's dumping pond for fly ash, a by-product of the 720 MW thermal power plant, broke the embankments and swept through 2,400 acres of land. The tide of ash slurry—which surged to about 10 feet in some places—made its way right into the Nandira river. En route, the contents of the 300-acre pond swept away houses, standing crops and livestock. The worst-hit villages are in Angul and Talcher tehsils. Luckily, no human lives were lost.

It's an environmental tragedy of no small proportion. Anywhere else in the world, such an accident would have triggered off an international controversy. In Orissa, it's being played down. A survey is on for accounting the damage in terms of money lost. The district administration claims it has the situation 'under control' and Nalco authorities have instituted an internal inquiry. But for the 50,000 villagers, the scramble for compensation has begun. While an expert committee has been set up to review the damage, no one is speaking about the long-term impact of the disaster. Angul's district collector L.N. Gupta admits that the removal of ash from agricultural land is "the main headache now". Mechanical earth excavation is the answer but any effort to use heavy vehicles would result in the obliteration of boundaries of agricultural fields. This could create a whole host of problems. Therefore, it has been decided that farmers would be paid at the government-schedule rate to remove the ash layer themselves; the ash would then be taken away by Nalco, says Gupta.

Nalco authorities have adopted the stand that fly ash is non-toxic and, in fact, beneficial to the soil "when added as a nutrient". But experts from the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology maintain that no crops can be grown in the affected soil for at least a year. The state government has therefore decided to ask Nalco to compensate affected farmers for the loss of standing crop as well as the next rabi and kharif season. Apart from the damage to agriculture, once dry, the ash would begin to fly around, posing a serious threat to the health of the population. Inhalation of the ash causes diseases such as fibrosis, bronchitis and pneumonitis. Moreover, all water bodies including wells and ponds in the area stand contaminated. While Nalco authorities claim they have now desilted 50 wells and dug 30 borewells, this is restricted to the 15 villages actually hit by the flood. About five lakh people in downstream villages in Angul, Dhenkanal, Kendrapada and Jajpur districts too are affected by the discharge as they are dependent on the river system for drinking water. Already, cases of gastroenteritis and skin disease have been reported. The Nandira river has taken a massive load of ash (30,000 cubic feet) and has overflown its banks as a result. Environmentalists fear this could cause untold damage to the sensitive mangrove system and marine life of the Bhittarkanika sanctuary.

The State Pollution Control Board (spcb) has held Nalco responsible for water pollution under sections 32/33 of the Pollution Prevention Act after a hearing held at Bhubaneshwar on January 15. spcb sources admit that even in villages up to Pattamundia, 150 km downstream, the water is unsafe for consumption. It's frothy and white in colour, with a high percentage of suspended particles.

The worst fear of both the state government and Nalco officials is the possibility of a breach in the dyke of the other ash pond. The ash ponds are large earthen reservoirs with 18-feet walls. Efforts are on to fortify the dyke. But the threat of another flash flood cannot be ruled out, what with allegations that the reservoirs are flawed in plan and defective in actual execution.

Despite denials, experts insist the Nalco ash ponds are faulty in construction and design. In fact, many believe Nalco may have sabotaged its own pond in a desperate bid to make more space for the overflowing ash. Ashok Das, a state Janata Dal leader, points out that acquiring land and constructing a third pond would have cost Nalco a cool Rs 200 crore. This way, the psu only has to shell out around Rs 10 crore in compensation and another Rs 40 crore for repair of the breached pond. Nalco dismisses this outright. But by any reckoning, Nalco—despite its iso 14001 status and awards—has many questions to answer.

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