A fly ash Dam of Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project of Reliance Company has breached[i] in the evening of April 10, 2020, near village Harrahva in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh, killing six people and destroying downstream river and fields. Following the breach there was massive flash flood of coal ash mixed sludge reportedly affecting hundreds of villages and destroying crops on thousands of acres.
Of the six people feared to have been killed in the flash floods, dead bodies of two have been found in faraway areas, while four are still missing. Two women injured in the aftermath are reported to be in stable condition in local hospital. Reports also suggest that many people could be trapped in their homes because of the poisonous sludge.
The liquid fly ash in huge volume has reached the river and Rihind reservoir located downstream in close proximity. The fly ash has toxic effects on aquatic life and would impact reservoir capacity however no media reports mention these aspects of the incident.
This is the third such incidents taking place in the area in last one year. First in August 2019, there was breach in artificial pond of Essar Power Company and then in October 2019 a similar incident had taken place in Vindhyachal super thermal power plant owned by NTPC in the district. Both the incidents had caused wide scale destruction.
Worried over the recurring breaches the locals had protested against the Sasan project following which the reliance company had reportedly in written assured villagers of ensuring safety against such breaches. There was also a survey visit by District Magistrate following which he too had assured villagers against any untoward dam breach incident.
There are 10 giant coal based power project operating in the area with a capacity of over 21,000 MW. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had found the Singrauli area second most polluted region in India. Such incidents in coal mining and power plants causing irreversible damages are increasing of late.
In fact on April 8 2020, there was report of South Eastern Coalfields (SECL) in Korba district, Chhattisgarh discharging polluted water[ii] in Hasdeo river for past few days, affecting villagers, livestock. The report also mentioned that the authority had not responded, nor remedied the situation.
In The Hindustan Times report, environment expert Ashwani Kumar Dubey was quoted saying: “Due to negligent act of officials[iv] of Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project, the fly ash dyke breached and toxic residue and fly ash-laden water entered the houses of villagers and damaged their crops and also entered the Rihand reservoir. There is a fear of loss of life as well,” Dubey said. He further said that only a few months back the officials of the power plant told a team of National Green Tribunal (NGT) that their fly ash dyke was in a good condition.
In another report in the same paper[v], Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said: “Singrauli as a region has nearly 23 GW installed coal-based capacity which more than 11% of the total installed capacity in India… The air they breathe is polluted, water they drink is contaminated and their traditional livelihood has been destroyed by coal mining”.
The NDTV report also quoted Ashwani Dubey who is a lawyer fighting cases related to pollution in Singrauli in the green court saying that all power companies had assured[vi] the NGT team that their ash dykes were in good health and were being maintained.
The Economic Times reported that flow of fly ash[vii] travelled at least six kilometres, swallowing up whole agricultural fields along the way. It was not clear how the dyke broke and Reliance Power said it was investigating the causes of the incident, adding the plant would continue to operate normally independent of relief operations.
Another report by NDTV quotes Singrauli District Collector KVS Chaudhary saying “So far two bodies of an eight-year-old boy and a 35-year-old man have been recovered from the ash slurry, around seven km away towards the border with Uttar Pradesh,”. “Four more persons including the boy’s sister, 9, his mother, and the 35-year-three-year-old man’s son are still missing,” he added.
The report also revealed that last year, a protest was held by locals[viii] against the power plant. “Three months ago, we had protested against the ash leak by Reliance Power Plant. The company gave us in writing that there would be no breach in the artificial pond. District Magistrate, collector had conducted checks and assured us there won’t be any mishap. Despite that, there was a leak. The district administration is to be blame,” Sandeep, a local, told reporters.
Fake assurances of Reliance to NGT team?
The reports clearly suggest serious negligence on part of Reliance Power Company, District Administration, CPCB, MPPCB and NGT Team that had visited, surveyed the area in the wake of previous similar breach incidents.
It is pertinent to ask what disciplinary, punitive actions that state government, union power ministry, pollution regulators and courts had taken against the companies responsible for earlier such incidents in this area and elsewhere. There seems to be no study, independent analysis recommending stringent safety measures against such avoidable disasters at state and central level.
Fly ash is known to be carcinogenic with detrimental health impacts on living species. However, there seems to be no governmental effort assessing the impact of such breaches on river eco-system, aquatic life, groundwater in the area and reservoirs storage capacity. While large number of village community are at the receiving end of these man-made disasters the responsible companies seem to operate without any change in the way such ash dams are designed, constructed and operated. Who regulates design, construction and operation of such dams? Questions that have no answers currently.
Bhim Singh Rawat (email@example.com)
1. As per Gaon Connection report a magisterial investigation has been ordered and notice issued to the power company to respond in three days.
2. Also see detailed multimedia report on breaching of ash pond here.
Times of India, April 13 report says, teams of Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (PCB) have also started an assessment of the environmental damage caused by the incident. Singrauli district collector K V S Chowdhary said, “MP Pollution Control Board is collecting samples from the spot and assessing the environmental damages”.
Sasan UMPP of Reliance Power will be liable for doing the restoration work and pay for the damages caused, said sources.
Reliance power management has given in writing to the district administration that a compensation of Rs10 lakh would be provided to the kin of deceased adults and in case of death of a minor. The official statement issued by the power plant has no mention of the deaths. It says, “We are deeply anguished by the incident involving the break in the ash dump yard wall at our Sasan power plant. The break in ash dump yard wall pushed the water leading to break in the boundary wall affecting some thatched houses. We are investigating the incident. Power plant operations are continuing since the relief and restoration work are not affected by the same. We are closely working with local residents and the district administration in our ongoing relief and restoration work”. The 3960 MW plant is one of the largest integrated power projects in the world.
3. Another report of Times of India date April 12, mentions that “administration said the power plant was warned four times between October and December 2019 about the dyke but in vain. “The collector’s office had issued showcause notices to Sasan Power regarding its ash dyke on October 4, 2019, October 22, 2019, November 30, 2019 and December 17, 2019, but no action was taken by the administration of Sasan power, which led to this incident. Appropriate action will be taken against the officials responsible,” it says.
4. Body of a 27-year-old woman was found after 72 hours of search operation by rescue teams in Singrauli district on Monday night. This is the third body recovered from Harhawa region of Singrauli, earlier two bodies were recovered on Saturday (April 11). https://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/power/reliance-power-plants-dyke-collapse-3rd-body-found-3-still-missing/75138931
5. This analysis shows failure of fly ash utilisation in India in spite of over two decades of facade: https://en.gaonconnection.com/the-criminality-of-fly-ash-management/
6. In Feb 2019, NGT appointed committee visited Singrauli to asses the fly ash management: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/under-scanner-ngt-panel-to-inspect-polluted-singrauli/articleshow/68136458.cms
7. State govt records point to the fact that the management of Sasan UMPP had paid no heed to repeated warnings to upgrade and strengthen the fly ash dykes in accordance with standards. Between October 2019 and December 2019, the district administration of Singrauli sent across five letters to Sasan UMPP, urging its management to strengthen and upgrade the dyke of the ash pond. Following the incident on April 10, the district administration has issued a show-cause notice to Sasan UMPP, asking why its management did not strengthen the fly ash dyke despite notices. The administration has also ordered a magisterial enquiry into the incident. https://www.newsclick.in/Singrauli-Fly-Ash-Flood-Industrial-Disaster-Waiting-Happen (16 April 2020)
8. Here are before after images of Planet satellite showing contaminated fly ash reaching Rihind dam after the dyke breached of 3960 MW Sasan coal power plant, breached on April 10. https://www.planet.com/stories/sasan-umpp-ash-dyke-breach-on-10th-april-2020-in-s-MZiVVwCWR (12 April 2020)
June 24, 2020:- Video shared by Bihari Shahwal on twitter on June 24, shows flyash settled on riverbed of Rihind tributary and clogging causeway on river is being flushed into the river with the help of JCB machine.