Sampur Power Plant: Sri Lanka’s Misguided Return to Coal

As the global community begins to recognize the severity of the challenge posed by climate change, the shift to low carbon economies is seen as a step that can no longer be delayed. Countries are investing in renewable energy and looking to wind, solar and  to lower carbon emissions, while reducing investment in fossil fuels. Coal is a fuel that is not is not only responsible for a majority of climate change causing emissions but also leads to smog, acid rain and air pollution, which is why many countries are moving away from coal dependence. The United Kingdom plans to phase out coal fired power plants by 2025, while China and the USA, both primary polluters, reported a decline in coal use in last two years.

Yet while the world initiates a transition to carbon neutrality in energy production, Sri Lanka is taking a regressive step that contradicts its own climate change objectives and endangers the health and welfare of its citizens. Despite the adverse environmental impacts of Norochcholai Power Plant, which was built without adequate safeguards or an environmental assessment that met international standards, theCentral Environmental Authority has approved the construction of another coal power plant in Sampur. This venture goes against all policies of renewable energy, environmental protection and climate change mitigation that the government and president himself have endorsed and promoted. At the COP21 conference in Paris, Sri Lanka presented its INDC which promoted development channeled through a low carbon pathway and endorsed a reduction of emissions from its energy sector. Under the Sri Lanka Next: Blue Green Era policy initiative, the current government has pledged to combat climate change and has recognized the importance of Sri Lanka’s natural resources, which will be further degraded by this plant. The policy advocates for a shift towards clean energy and away from fossil fuels to meet the country’s growing energy requirements. It seeks to adopt a low carbon emission development model as the main pillar for the nation’s future path in sustainable economic and social development.

The Sampur Power Plant will produce 500 megawatts of power using two generators with a capacity of250 megawatts each. The daily coal requirement of the plant is 5,149 tons which will be supposedly sourced from Indonesia, Australia, South Africa and India. By doing so Sri Lanka is effectively importing carbon emissions and a slew of accompanying hazards, which is irreconcilable with the Blue Green Era Policy.

Furthermore, the approval of this project, contradicts the Ten Year Development Plan of the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy which involves eliminating use of fossil fuels by 2030. While Sampur is the result of a series of negotiations and agreements made with India in 2006, it is worth noting that India has since begun to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and has planned to invest $200 Billion on renewable energy.

The emissions from coal combustion produce alarming quantities of harmful compounds, including Sulphur dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, Hydrocarbons, Carbon monoxide. While trace levels of Uranium and Thorium naturally occur in coal, the burning of coal to fly ash leaves these radioactive elements at concentrations of 10 times the original level. Fly ash is dispersed across a wide area and the uranium can leach into soil and waterways, affecting crops and exposing inhabitants to the same risk as living in proximity to a nuclear facility. Heavy metals such as Mercury, Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium found in fly ash will also contaminate rivers that irrigate vital agricultural regions in the Northeast and North central provinces including Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Trincomalee.

Sulphur dioxide and Nitrogen oxides emitted by coal power plants will result in acid rain. As the proposed location of the coal plant is in the path of the northeast monsoon, winds will carry acid rain into the central mountains where they will severely affect the tea industry and the mountain rain forests that are world-renowned for their biodiversity. Furthermore, acid rain will also affect historically significant monuments in the Cultural Triangle.

As per the Gazette notification 1913/19 issued on May 7, 2015, land in close proximity to the coal power plant site in Sampur was transferred to internally displaced persons. The EIA Report of the project does not include the cumulative impact on the agricultural fields and the quality of air to which these IDPs will be exposed to. The heavy metals and smog from the coal power plant will affect air quality causing widespread health issues amongst a population already afflicted with chronic kidney disease. Disposing of the sludge from the scrubbers will cause an accumulation of heavy metals and radioactive elements in dumping sites. The chemicals in the sludge will then leach into the ground water, affecting people for generations to come.

The proposed power plant will use up to 90,000 m3 of water per hour to produce steam and for cooling the system after generating electricity. Sea water from Koddiyar Bay will be used for this process and discharged into Shell Bay, which has a very high biodiversity and supports a very sensitive marine ecosystem. Even a slight rise in the temperature is proven to cause damage to the corals. A constant release of high temperature water into the Bay could cause irreversible damage this ecosystem. In addition it is inevitable that even some of the above mentioned toxic heavy metals will find their way to the bay and will spell even more disaster to the plant and animal population and the fisheries in the wider marine ecosystem.

Contrary to the arguments of the CEB proposing the urgent construction of this plant, there is no imminent danger of power shortage. This was clearly outlined in the presentations made by eminent experts at the public hearing held by the Public Utilities Commission on the Long Term Generation Plan proposed by the CEB. Large coal power plants are clearly not suitable for Sri Lanka, as demonstrated by the inability of the CEB to operate the 900 MW at Norochcholai at capacity.

Moreover, upon requesting conditions of the approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)from the Project Proponent, Trincomalee Power Company Ltd, EFL received a negative response. This isa violation of fundamental rights of the general public of Sri Lanka since the EIA itself is a public document and approval and approval conditions should also be available in the public domain.Considering the severe long term ramifications of the Sampur power plant and the negative precedent it sets for future investors in coal power, it is imperative that this venture is halted. With the availability of less harmful renewable energy sources that can be derived from biomass, solar, hydro and wind, SriLanka’s growing energy demand can be met without compromising on the health and safety of its present and future generations

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