Controversy over Burning Trash for Power, and Carbon Credits, in India

India is going full-steam ahead with plans to build a type of power plant that converts garbage to power, despite fears by some that it could amount to a pollution disaster in a country without strong air quality regulations.

Construction of cleaner-burning waste-to-energy facilities is gathering pace across Europe. But the situation in India is different, opponents say.

Whereas in Europe new plants generally must have state-of-the-art filters and scrubbers to catch toxins, India’s environmental laws are too lax to force restrictions on the amount of pollution pouring out of smokestacks, they argue.

Indian developers of the plants deny such allegations and say pollutant traps will be in place.

Much of the current action is centered around Sukhdev Vihar, a wealthy residential area in the crowded national capital of New Delhi, less than four miles from the Indian Parliament, where a massive plant capable of handling 2,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day is rapidly coming up.

Plant to convert gabage to power

“Why are they siting this plant within 200 meters of our houses?” local homemaker Asha Arora demands to know, pointing to the 10-story-high superstructure now towering over Sukhdev Vihar.

A Worse Location for Trash Plant?

Experts say the government could not have picked a worse location for a plant that they claim will emit dioxins, furans, nox, sox, respirable particulate matter and other toxic chemicals associated with waste-to-energy plants that are designed to run on “rubbish-derived fuel” (RDF). 

Within a radius of about a half a mile of the plant, which is being set up by waste management company Jindal Ecopolis as a public-private partnership, there are four major health facilities: the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, Holy Family Hospital, the Fortis Heart Institute and the Cheshire Homes for the sick and elderly.

Also falling within a couple of miles are the Jamia Millia Islamia University, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and residential areas ranging from top addresses, such as Maharani Bagh and New Friends Colony to densely populated residential areas, like Haji Colony and Ghaffar Manzil. 

Prominent bird photographer Clement Francis said he is dismayed by the project, which is likely to impact the 400-odd bird species, including migratory ones, which stop over at the park.

“This is typical of the so-called development projects that are being pursued, with little concern for the environment,” he said.

Already, migratory birds foraging in the park, through which the highly polluted Yamuna river runs, have been found dead from mercury poisoning.  

Developer Dismisses Pollution Fears

Indresh Batra, a top executive with Jindal, dismisses those fears. He says the plant will have flue gas control systems designed to trap dioxins, furans, sox and nox, and that the fly ash and residues will be used for making tiles and bricks. 

Batra said confidently that the capacity of the project would eventually be doubled to handle 4,000 tons of trash, and that it would rank among the world’s top 10 facilities of its kind.  

Because the plant would generate 16 megawatts of electricity from RDF, it has been registered with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to earn carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.    

For some environmental advocates, this is where the problems begin.

“Annexure A of the Kyoto Protocol clearly says that waste incineration emits greenhouse gases,” said Gopal Krishna, who leads the Toxic Watch Alliance campaign group.

“Municipal solid waste cannot be considered as renewable energy source because it’s a mixture of substances that originate from renewable and non-renewable sources,” Krishna said.

Krishna also points to the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers incinerators, irrespective of technology, as emitters of dioxins and major sources of mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic pollutants.

There are currently about 90 garbage-burning facilities across America, which dumps most of its trash in landfills. Most were constructed two decades ago. Europe has some 430 waste-to-energy plants up and running, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands actively building new ones.

The Asian Development Bank refused to fund the New Delhi project after Jindal submitted an application for consideration, providing no public reason for its rejection. 

White Paper: Composting the Only Option

For several years now, Indian government officials have considered how best to handle the 7,000 tons of waste that New Delhi generates daily. Some of the country’s best brains on the issue came together in 2007 to create a white paper for the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which recommended composting as the only viable option for the city’s trash.  

Citing studies by the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, the white paper said: “Thermal treatment methods such as incineration or conversion of waste to briquettes and its subsequent use as fuel are not feasible due to low heat value” of garbage in New Delhi.

Indian garbage has been estimated to have an an average calorific value of about 800 cal/kg when incineration technologies demand a minimum of 2,000 cal/kg.

Krishna says that any waste-to-energy plant now being set up stands in violation of a 2005 Supreme Court ban. In 2007, a court order partially lifted the ban against building such power plants and gave the greenlight “for the time being with five pilot projects.” Advocates say the new plant is too large to be considered a pilot facility.

Such plants may also violate the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, adopted in  May 2001, to reduce or eliminate the production/use and release of 12 chemicals include – aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans. 

India signed the Convention on May 14, 2002, and it has been in force in this country since April 2006.

“Projects like these demonstrate a case of conflict between the Kyoto Protocol and the Stockholm Convention,” said Krishna. “In the new rush to earn carbon credits hazardous and unsuitable technologies are being pushed in.”

For ‘Rag Pickers,’ this A ‘Livelihoods Issues’

“Incineration plants have been a failure in India,” said B. Sen Gupta, member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), part of the government’s ministry of environment and forests. “This is because waste is not scientifically managed and there is no system in place to segregate rubbish as in other countries.”

But the loudest opponent of waste-to-energy plants is India’s army of about 300,000 so-called “rag pickers,” who rummage through rubbish dumps to efficiently retrieve plastic, metal and anything that can be recycled.

“For rag pickers this is a livelihoods issue,” said Shashi Bhushan Pandit of the All-India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh, a leading rag pickers’ union.  

“The CPCB manual on handling waste recognizes the role of rag pickers as partners, but if all waste is to be dealt with by large companies and incinerators they will be left high and dry.”

Like the hapless residents of Sukhdev Vihar, Pandit said he too was not consulted before the plan to set up incinerators was set in motion.   

*Story by Ranjit Devraj. Ranjit writes for a website dedicated to environmental issues

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