Life amidst lignite: How coal dust is sparking a massive health crisis for Neyveli residents

Coal from the bunkers and mines and coal dust from power plants make their homes filthy and makes breathing a dangerous exercise.
Life amidst lignite: How coal dust is sparking a massive health crisis for Neyveli residents
Life amidst lignite: How coal dust is sparking a massive health crisis for Neyveli residents
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Chinnaponnu breathes heavily as she cleans her house for the second time in the day; coal dust is everywhere. The dust, she said, is from a coal bunker located less than 2 km from her home. The bunker, a hulking mountain of grey, looms into view as one enters Bharathidasan Nagar in Vadalur. It is not surprising that the dust invades the house faster than Chinnaponnu can clean it. 

Buckets of water that Chinnaponnu fills every morning are lined up in the compound of her house. “We filled these buckets at 8.30am today. Look inside—you see that? It’s all kari (coal),” she complained. It was 1.15pm then. 

Water to be used for all domestic purposes – black particles are coal; Photo: Hari Ramanathan

Chinnaponnu is not alone—her story is echoed in the lives of the residents living in and around the Neyveli Township, in Cuddalore district. Coal from the bunkers and mines and coal dust and ash from power plants make their homes filthy and makes breathing almost a dangerous exercise. Much of the land, and all coal-related assets as far as eye can see belong to Neyveli Lignite Corporation India Ltd (NLC), a Government of India company. 

In mid-June, a few lakh tonnes of lignite caught fire at NLC’s Mine-A, and burned for days. NLC had stored more than the safely permitted quantum of coal at the bunker that caught fire. When ambient temperatures rise, and coal stockpiles are under heavy pressure, lignite can spontaneously combust leading to such disastrous fires. Rather than take responsibility for the disaster and handle it, NLC officials played things down. An article in Times of India quotes NLC officials saying conflicting things. First, they claimed that the disaster occurred despite NLC's compliance with best safety practices; then, they claimed that such incidents are unavoidable and “only likely” to occur when large quantities of lignite are stored; finally, they deftly shifted the blame on their client for having failed to remove the coal to their premises.

NLC’s lackadaisical response makes Chinnaponnu’s struggles seem illusory. This is far from the truth. 

A visit to Cuddalore a week prior to the fire brought to light stories of communities living in the vicinity of NLC's industrial installations. Living in the shadow of 12 industrial facilities, local residents from the area had a reading of NLC's worth that was at odds with what the company claimed. In village after village, residents pointed out that NLC may have brought development to the country, but its operations had yielded nothing but misery locally.  

NLC’s ‘Mine 1’ is right behind Odaithandu Kuppam. The mine and its ash pond are on land that once belonged to the villagers. A wall of fine coal and ash—referred to by the locals as a coal bund—forms an embankment enclosing the ash pond. NLC acquired the land for construction of the mine and coal bunker promising employment for the oustees.  Residents have been evicted and relocated twice since. But no jobs have come their way.“The third time this site expanded, no one from our village was given work. They employed ‘hindikaran’ (Hindi speaking migrant workers). NLC is full of them, our wait was in vain,” said Velmurugan, a community leader. 

As we walked towards the bund, Velmurugan opened up. From the broken promises of employment, he began talking about living in close proximity to the mine and coal bund. 

The bund frequently catches fire, he said. “It is difficult to know when the bund is on fire. There is hardly any flame and smoke cannot be seen until much later. On very hot days, the heaps catch fire automatically. Many cattle get caught and sustain injuries by unknowingly climbing on the smouldering bund; one young boy in our village even lost his leg to a bund fire,” says Velmurugan.

A wall of fine coal and ash forms an embankment enclosing the ash pond of Mine 1; Photo: Hari Ramanathan

Available literature on the subject (report published by Coaltech Research Association) confirms this statement, “Favourable conditions for spontaneous heating would be the accumulation of heat caused by a rise in temperature and hence an increase in the reaction rate. Although, at ambient temperature, the reaction can be so slow that it is unnoticed when heat accumulates the temperature is raised and. . .the reaction rate increases exponentially.”

Standing atop the bund with Velmurugan and Suresh, Mine 1’s ash pond stretches to the edges of the landscape. It is miles of ash in all directions. Heavy earth-moving equipment was moving ash on lands that till recently bore healthy agricultural yields and income for farmers like Suresh and Velmurugan. But now, it is not just the ash pond, but also the land in areas around the pond that have lost their fertility. “The soil is not at all like it was before. We used to grow sugarcane, peanuts and groundnuts in abundance. Even if crops grow now, the yield is very poor. Water used for keeping the coal ash from flying into our village is mixed in our water and soil. We do not make even 50% of the profit that we used to,” says Suresh.  

The health of the local people is not much better than that of the soil.  Aged 45, Sasikala runs a small scale convenience store in Odaithandu Kuppam. “My daughter studies in 7th standard; she just returned home for her summer vacation. It has been only a few weeks but she has already developed a skin allergy,” she said. I have a skin allergy too for which I use a lotion and take medicines. The doctor said, “Air, water and soil pollution are the causes for these,” she says.  The dearth of medical facilities in the area only adds to her and her family’s burdens. She visits a doctor once a month in Puducherry, a two-hour journey from her home, for her condition. 

Coal ash is toxic. “When suspended in the air as dust, coal ash is a serious health hazard. The inhalation of toxic dust from disposal, transport and plant operations can cause serious injuries to workers and communities residing near coal ash dumps. Coal ash dust is small particles; the smaller the particle, the greater the health risks. The very smallest particles are inhaled into the deepest part of the lungs where they trigger inflammation and immunological reactions,” states a report titled ‘Ash in lungs’ by Earthjustice.  

Villagers from various parts of Cuddalore district have been evicted and relocated for the construction of industrial projects, most under the banner of NLC.  

Another report by Physicians for Social Responsibility has this to say about coal ash: “. . .depending on where the coal is mined, coal ash commonly contains some of the world’s deadliest toxic metals: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium. These and other toxicants in coal ash can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans.”

We walk around in disbelief. The toxic coal dust is everywhere. The stairs to Velmurugan’s house in Puduyerai Rehabilitation Centre, South Vellore, is caked with coal dust. The source is the omnipresent coal bunker (this one belonging to NLC’s Mine 2). “My children go to sleep wearing only their undergarments because of the heat. They wake up in the morning with a layer of black on their skin. There is too much coal in the air here,” he says. 

Terrace caked with coal from the bunker; Photo: Hari Ramanathan

Other villagers chime in and a litany of ailments resulting from coal dust exposure follows —allergies, breathing trouble, coal dust in phlegm, blood pressure and sugar complaints, urinary infections and kidney stones

What we saw and heard from the displaced villagers and affected by NLC's operations was completely different from the rosy picture painted by NLC even as fire ravaged one of its bunkers a week after our visit.

I remember how the colleague who had accompanied me had developed a rasping cough by the end of our visit. Speaking through a running nose and heavy breaths, he explained that coal dust exposure atop his already high eosinophil count was the reason behind his distress.

My own skin was itchy. Chinnaponnu's words to me as we left her house that day rang in my ears. “Wait until the end of today, there will be coal on you too- it will be all black!” I rubbed my neck, and my fingers came away with powdery traces of black. 

(The author is a Chennai-based campaigner with Healthy Energy Initative, India) 

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