Tamil Nadu’s Ennore is a case study in climate recklessness and environmental casteism

With two power plants under construction and two in the pre-licensing stage, the predominantly working class Ennore-Manali industrial area remains a site of structural environmental and social discrimination.
Morning scene at Ennore seashore
Morning scene at Ennore seashore

On April 12, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) is scheduled to conduct a public hearing for state-owned electricity utility TANGEDCO’s proposal to set up the Ennore Thermal Power Station (ETPS), a 660 MW coal-fired thermal power plant in Ennore in north Chennai. Coming up in a state where the government is talking up its commitment to combating climate change and social injustice, its insistence on pushing ETPS in an already over-polluted region exposes the yawning gap that the government needs to span to actually walk its talk on both counts. Here’s why.

Environmental casteism

Even after the racial epithet “Black Town” in reference to north Chennai was dropped post-independence, this predominantly working class region remains a site of structural environmental and social discrimination. The proposed power plant falls within the Ennore-Manali industrial area, a patchwork of localised toxic hotspots within north Chennai’s polluted airshed. Ennore’s cluster of thermal power plants has 3,300 MW of coal-burning capacity; of this, TANGEDCO operates 1,800 MW and NTPC-owned NTECL Vallur operates 1,500 MW.

Two more TANGEDCO projects totalling 2,120 MW are at an advanced state of completion, and two projects of 1,320 MW capacity are in the pre-licensing stage. TANGEDCO’s ETPS (expansion) is one of the latter two; ETPS (replacement) is the other. If all plans materialise despite local opposition, the Ennore cluster will be home to 7,740 MW of coal-burning power plants. Then, Chennai will have the dubious distinction of hosting the largest capacity of carbon-spewing coal power plants among any metropolitan region in the world.

That is not all. North Chennai is home to a 10 million tonne/year oil refinery, 36 large, red category petrochemical and other factories, and the city’s largest garbage dump. Taken together, the Ennore-Manali region contains the densest concentration of fossil-fuel industries in south India.

Demographically, north Chennai is also home to the densest concentration of marginalised communities in the Metropolitan area. According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the ETPS (expansion) project, more than 37% of the population in the study area is from Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe or Most Backward Communities. It is no coincidence that such a high concentration of dirty industries is located in this region. This is modern untouchability, or as social scientist MSS Pandian puts it “caste by other means”.

Officially over-polluted

Industries in north Chennai operate in a regulatory vacuum. In November 2020, Chennai Climate Action Group, a youth-led initiative, published a report titled ‘Poison in the Air’ that analysed real-time emission data from the smokestacks of six large polluting industries, including TANGEDCO’s North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS), NTECL, CPCL’s oil refinery, Madras Fertilisers Ltd, Tamil Nadu Petroproducts Ltd and Madras Petrochemical Ltd. Taken together, the six were operating in violation of prescribed air pollution norms for nearly 60% of the year in 2019. The fact that the data was available with and sourced from the TNPCB using Right to Information exposes the agency’s ineptitude as a regulator.

The report triggered suo motu action by the National Green Tribunal, which constituted a Joint Committee comprising senior officials of the Union environment ministry, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and TNPCB, and a scientist from Anna University. Buried in the report are two key findings:

1. Ground-level Particulate Matter (PM) pollution due to emissions from NCTPS’ Stage I power plant alone exceeded the carrying capacity of the area in the vicinity of the plant.

2. Ground-level sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution from emissions from CPCL’s oil refinery exceeded the carrying capacity of the area in the vicinity of the plant.

The carrying capacity of an airshed for an air pollutant, say PM 10 or SO2, is the maximum emission (or the natural limit) of that air pollutant that can be released from all sources into the airshed such that these emissions do not lead to concentrations of that pollutant in excess of local ambient air quality standards.

The Joint Committee’s report finds that the carrying capacity for PM 10 has been exhausted just from the emissions from NCTPS’s Stage I, and for SO2/NO2 by emissions from CPCL. The cumulative impact of pollution from other industries or the movement of heavy vehicles to and from the port and factories was not even considered.

TNPCB claims to have issued notices demanding “environmental compensation” of more than Rs 8 crore from the six industries. But none has paid up. Even if they do, the compensation will not reach the victims of the pollution. Rather it will be paid to the account of TNPCB that allowed the pollution in the first place.

SO2 and dust or PM pollution are serious health hazards. SO2 is an acidic gas that irritates the lining of the nose, throat and lungs, and can worsen existing respiratory illnesses, and heart disease. PM pollution is linked to various kinds of cancers, reduced lung function, cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, and an overall reduction in life expectancy.

Curiously, TANGEDCO’s EIA for the proposed ETPS plant also confirms the over-polluted state of the local airshed. According to the EIA, PM 10 levels recorded in all seven residential areas – Ennore, Athipattu, Sivagami Nagar, Vallur, Ponniamman Nagar, Ernavur village and Manali New Town, and 2 industrial sites, including within the proposed ETPS site – exceeded safe levels.

Official confirmation

Earlier this month, a report of a Joint Experts Committee (JEC) set up by the National Green Tribunal (SZ) in a case (OA 8 of 2016) filed by an Ennore fisherman appeared on the tribunal’s website. This committee looked into the pollution – particularly coal ash leaks – caused by TANGEDCO’s NCTPS. The high-level committee included Santha Sheela Nair, IAS (retd) as chairperson, senior officials from the CPCB and TNPCB, Dr  Balaji Narasimhan, hydrologist, IIT-Madras, Dr Indumathi Nambi, environmental scientist, IIT-Madras, eminent botanist Dr D Narasimhan, restoration ecologist Dr Jayashree Vencatesan, and Dr Deepak Samuel, a marine biologist from the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management.

The report’s findings reveal the depth of the pollution and health crisis already underway in north Chennai. Unlike the detached and often substandard reports submitted by committees dominated by regulatory authorities, the JEC’s report relies on and narrates the experiences of members during field visits and interactions with local residents, and draws from detailed investigations by scientific members of the committee.

A sample of extracts from the JEC’s observations from the field visit, public consultation and findings are reproduced below:

From the Site Visit: “The JEC visited the ash-contaminated sites by road on 30.12.2021. A site visit report is annexed. [Annexure 3] However, we also wish to register our observations not merely as unemotional observers, but also at a human level.

“The visit brought home to all committee members the harsh reality of the life of local residents. The committee’s exposure to ash-choked neighbourhood, though brief, was distressful. Visibility was poor due to the dust in the air. Many committee members experienced breathing difficulty after some time there and eye irritation. The sheer physical discomfort in the brief period the committee spent there deeply impacted us as it made us realise that this is a 24/7 phenomenon for people living here.”

From the Public Consultation:

“The committee’s own observations that polluters have polluted and continue to pollute with impunity were repeated by members of the public who were openly cynical of this committee and voiced their fears of this also being just another “eye-wash.”

“Pollution is reported to be the main cause of illness in the region. NCTPS was identified as a major cause of air pollution, and the region is a hotspot of pollution due to the concentration of power plants and other polluting industries. Children and women are particularly affected, and gynaecological problems were particularly reported by respondents. . .They expressed concern that more and more polluting industries are proposed to be located in Ennore unmindful of the prevailing health crisis.”

From the Findings sections (paraphrased):

            Unlicensed operation

  • TANGEDCO’s NCTPS Stage I and II have operated without a valid Consent/License under Air and Water Acts since 2015 and 2019 respectively.

             Illegal emissions

  • CPCB/TNPCB found TANGEDCO had tampered with the Online Continuous Emission Monitoring System so that actual results are not transferred to CPCB and TNPCB.
  • Despite the tampering, between 01.04.2019 and 07.03.2022 (1071 days), NCTPS Stage 1 emitted particulate matter (including ash) in excess of permissible levels for 481 days.
  • During the same period (1091 days), NCTPS Stage II emitted particulate matter (including ash) in excess of permissible levels for 791 days.

            Cancer risk

  • Adults face a high cancer and non-cancer risk due to cadmium and lead exposure.
  • Cancer and non-cancer risk for children is much higher due to exposure to cadmium, lead and copper. Compared to an acceptable cancer risk norm of 1 in a million, cancer risk for children due to exposure to these pollutants is a 1000 times higher.

            Wetlands choked, contaminated by coal ash

  • More than 56 lakh tonnes of coal ash is spread over the riverbed, with flyash deposits ranging in depth from 1 ft to 8 ft.
  • Natural drainage patterns have been considerably altered due to fly ash pond construction and ash contamination. This will have an impact on local hydrology and flooding.
  • Surface sediments are heavily contaminated with levels of cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc well in excess of safe levels as per Canadian sediment quality guideline for protection of aquatic life.

            Loss of wetlands

  • The Ennore wetlands studied by JEC has shrunk from 855.69 ha in 1996 to 277.92 ha in 2022. Meanwhile,

◦        built-up area increased from 0 ha to 259.87 ha;

◦        area covered by flyash increased from 0 ha to 260.28 ha;

◦        area under mangroves decreased 68.72 to 33.74 ha.

             Impact on fisher livelihoods

  • Several fish species have either disappeared or diminished. These include: White prawn, black prawn, sand prawn, tiger prawn, green crab (Scylla serrata), Flotosus canius, Mugil cephalus, Silver Biddy (Gerres sp.), sand whiting (Sillago sihama), Terrapon jarbua, sea bass (Lates calcarifer), and other fishes locally called Kalavan, Udupathi, Panna, Oodan.
  • Damage to the river and reduction in fish catch has drastically affected fisher livelihoods, including of women fishers from SC/ST community who hand-pick shrimp and crab from the river bed.
  • The impacts of pollution on livelihoods and health has eroded the economic status of affected people due to lost income, lost work days and increased health care expenditure.

A climate reckless act

On April 4, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) third Working Group released a report that unequivocally declared that no new coal plants can be built anywhere in the world if we are to have any hope of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degree Celsius. This is the threshold beyond which the costs of adapting to climate change will become prohibitively expensive and yield diminishing returns. The window of opportunity to keep climate disasters within manageable limits is closing fast, and will have closed completely by 2030 – just 8 years away.

IPCC’s reports – this one on mitigation and the earlier one on adaptation – spotlight the increased risk exposure of marginalised communities and the poor. Both between nations and within countries, it is the poorer nations and people – those that contributed the least to the climate crisis – who will be worst affected by the effects of climate change. The report’s prescriptions for Climate Resilient Development situate equity and social justice concerns at the centre of all interventions, and warn that measures taken either in the name of development or climate adaptation that aggravate inequity and injustice will defeat global efforts to contain runaway climate change and meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Climate change manifests itself in the form of rising sea levels, increased heat stress, intense rain events and droughts, salinity intrusion and ocean desertification due to warming seas. Coastal wetlands like the Ennore estuary and Kosasthalai’s backwaters are natural shock absorbers that mitigate flooding during heavy rains or tidal surges, check salinity intrusion and keep the oceans healthy by restocking it with fish. ETPS will aggravate the already degraded state of the Ennore wetlands and nearshore seas.

  • The ETPS project envisages a coal ash dump inside the river, and a coal conveyor corridor cutting through the already degraded estuary and mangrove-fringed islands.
  • Each day, more than 170 million (17 crore) litres of seawater will be drawn using giant pumps that will suck in marine life along with water. What life does not get killed by getting trapped by the filters fitted at the pipe-heads will be killed by dousing with biocides in the intake water storage tanks.
  • More than 120 million litres of hot wastewater will be discharged daily into the ocean. Marine organisms are hypersensitive to temperature changes. Such discharge in an already warming ocean will create localised marine deserts in the nearshore waters, and further hurt the artisanal fisher economy.

For all the controversy it has generated, ETPS does not even address an electricity shortage. In 2019-20, all state-run thermal power plants operated at a plant load factor of 56%, according to the government’s submission to the state Assembly. That means the existing plants remained idle for the equivalent of 160 out of 365 days*.

The ETPS project is a reckless proposal because of its global climate implications and because of what it does to local communities. Just in Ennore and between the two power plants under construction and the two that are in pre-licensing stage, the state government is investing Rs 30,000 crore in climate-changing, inequity-aggravating activities. Meanwhile, for all of Tamil Nadu, the government has announced a Rs 500 crore climate mission and a Rs 100 crore wetland mission. For Tamil Nadu to stay true to its declared commitment to social justice and combating climate change, this imbalance has to be rapidly set right. Abandoning the ETPS proposal and investing in improving local health, health care and the health of the wetlands would be a step in that direction.

* Source: Energy Policy Note, Government of Tamil Nadu, 2020-2021.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute