Water scarcity looms as forests cleared for Chennai power plant, warn environmentalists

About 50 acres of trees have allegedly been cut down illegally for a coal-based power plant in North Chennai.
Water scarcity looms as forests cleared for Chennai power plant, warn environmentalists
Water scarcity looms as forests cleared for Chennai power plant, warn environmentalists
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In what has raised alarm bells among environmentalists and the fishing community of Chennai, about 50 acres of forested area has been cleared around the North Chennai Thermal Power Plant Station (NCTPS).  

The felling of trees, environmentalists say, is for NCTPS Stage III, a 1x800MW coal-based power plant that is to be built at a cost of Rs 4800 crore and is to be commissioned in December 2017.

“The clearing of the forested area is illegal. It goes against already existing environmental clearances,” points out Pooja Kumar, a coordinator with The Coastal Resource Centre.

Illegal felling of trees?

What Pooja is referring to are the prior sanctions granted to NCTPS Stage I and II on the condition that a green belt be maintained around the plant.

She notes, “Stage I of NCPTS was set up in 1987. When clearances were granted, one of the conditions was that a green belt should be maintained all around the plant. In 1996, when Stage 2 was constructed, the condition was that there should be 1500 to 2000 trees per hectare and that the green belt must be maintained.”

But what’s more is that in its compliance reports, submitted once every six months, Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO) has informed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that the green belt raised has been maintained. A recent report in June 2015 mentions that the conditions have been complied with.  

However, fishermen living near the Ennore Creek say that the felling of trees began in late August last year. “The thermal power plant has already affected the fishing community badly. Our catch has reduced over the years owing to fly ash being discharged into the creek,” says RL Srinivasan, a fisherman from Kattukuppam.

Google images taken in February 2017 and provided by The Coastal Resource Centre show the sizeable depletion of green cover.

NCPTS Complex before expansion (Image courtesy: The Coastal Resource Centre)

NCPTS Complex after expansion (Image courtesy: The Coastal Resource Centre)

“So far about 50 acres have been cleared. With documents showing that the project site spans 190 acres, we fear that over 100 acres of forested area will now be cleared,” says Pooja.

Environmental consequences

While environmentalists have in the past detailed how NCTPS has killed the Ennore Creek, they argue that the clearing of the green belt around the power plant will have disastrous consequences.

Warning of water scarcity and a heat wave, Pooja points out that the power plants have come up in the southern end of the Kattukupalli island, which is known for its sand dunes and forest cover.

“The trees hold the sand dunes together. The dunes act like a sponge for the water to seep into the ground. It has been extremely critical for maintaining ground water. Without the trees, and the dunes, it opens up the ground water for saline intrusion,” says the coordinator for Coastal Resource Centre.  She also notes that cutting down vegetation can spell disaster for Chennai’s water supply as the city gets 125 MLD from the Kosasthaliyar-Araniyar basin.

“What is the necessity for this thermal power plant? We already have no water in the area,” argues Srinivasan.   

While the Ennore Creek has suffered considerable damage over the years, Pooja alleges that tree stumps and asbestos roofing are being dumped in the creek. “Fishermen already have to get down into the water and walk as the creek has become shallow because of the fly ash. This is hazardous waste and can be disastrous. Moreover, it’s an ecologically sensitive area, a large number of migratory birds can also get affected,” she explains.

Project clearances

With the present felling of trees going against the government’s earlier conditions, the question is on what basis has NCPTS sanctioned the clearing of green cover?

A project document uploaded by TANGEDCO on NCTPS Stage-III states, “The barren land of 190 acres available within the existing NCTPS Complex has been proposed for this project and hence there is no new land acquisition and no R&R issues.”

While the site for the proposed plant may come under the NCTPS Complex, Pooja observes that TANGEDCO has failed to inform MoEF that the land is a forested area.

NCTPS Stage III did, however, receive clearance from the MoEF in January 2016. “But that doesn’t mean they can start building or constructing the project. They still require the Consent to Establish under the Air and Water Act from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board,” notes Pooja.

An RTI from the pollution control board dated November 2016 reveals that the clearance has not been sanctioned for the project. Furthermore, a TANGEDCO official who spoke to The Hindu observed that Consent to Establish had not been granted and that preliminary geo-thermal tests and test piles for the soil were being carried out.  

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