It has been two days since a fire broke out in a mine of Neyveli Lignite Corporation India in Neyveli, destroying a few lakh tonnes of lignite. But with no air pollution details or extent of damage announced, environmentalists in the state are alleging that a cover-up similar to the one after the Ennore oil spill, is underway.
The lignite that was being stored to supply fuel to the Omangalam private power plant had reportedly caught fire due to intense heat on Monday afternoon. The firm failed to transport lignite from the mine leading to accumulation of the coal in the mine. Following the incident, not only did officials claim that precautionary measures were in place but they also rubbished accusations of hazardous chemicals polluting the region.
"Lignite is the dirtiest form of coal that is available and the most polluting. As soon as the fire broke out, instead of playing down the issue, advisories should have been put out," says Shwetha Narayanan, an environmentalist. Advisories usually carry precautions regarding the air quality and which areas people must avoid. "With good wind this smoke carrying heavy metals such as manganese and nickel, could travel up to 200 km. NLC saying that there will be no environmental impact, makes no sense because it will severely affect human health," she adds.
According to environmentalists, the smoke from this blaze is toxic and could cause respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. Those with cardiac problems and the elderly will be the most affected. The ash from the coal could mix in water bodies and even seep into the ground, contaminating the water table.
"Not just that. The ash will coat the leaves of trees and plants and hinder photosynthesis," says Chennai-based activist Nityanand. "Thermal power plants by themselves are polluting, even when coal is burned in controlled conditions. Residents in Neyveli are already protesting against the plant present there. Now, when it burns without control, it will lead to suspension of heavy metals, sulphur dioxide and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons in the air. This will definitely enter people's homes," he adds.
India is already battling worsening air pollution with over 1 million premature deaths in 2015, attributed to the quality of air around us.
Nityanand further alleges that the company does not have any mechanisms in place to check the air pollution caused. "They will use the absence of air pollution data as proof of their innocence," says Nityanand.
NCL claimed that they had sprinklers in place, in order to avert fires but the blaze intensified despite that. "First of all, they refuse to divulge how much coal was there and if they are allowed to store that amount of inflammable material," says Shwetha. "This is just like in the case of the oil spill, where Kamarajar port refused to accept that the spill was huge till they were forced to call the coast guard for help," she adds.
"And do they really think that sprinklers will help control a fire caused by tonnes of lignite?" asks Nityanand exasperated.