27 June, 2022


The Energy Trap – II

By Ranil Senanayake

Ranil Senanayake

Ranil Senanayake

What are real environmental, ecological and health issues that arise from the use of coal? We, the public have never been told of the dangers and problems that could arise from the use of coal to provide our power needs.  Now let us look at the experience of those countries offering us coal fired power plants. The Chinese, it seems are constantly protesting the ill effects of coal-fired power plants

1. May 2011: Protests against coal mining operations break out in Inner Mongolia

2.  December 20, 2011, tens of thousands of residents in “a key economic area” of China’s southern Guandong Province protests Coal fired power plants

3. March 2012: Hainan residents protest new plant

4. October 2012: Chinese protesters clash with police over Hainan coal power plant in Yinggehai

5. April 2012: Chinese villagers in Southern Beijing riot over coal plant, killing 1 policeman

6. January 2014 : Villagers of Oriliq, in the Western district protest the ill effects of a recent Coal fired power plant

And, CBS News reported on Sept 12th that China had announced banning of new coal-fired power plants in three key industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in its latest bid to combat the country’s notorious air pollution. Who they going to sell these old dirty power plants to is a matter for inquiry

Why have we not been told any of this?

What about India?  I submit a table from the recently published paper “Coal Kills.  An Assessment of Death and Disease caused by India’s Dirtiest Energy Source “  from www.UrbanEmissions.info 

RS stat

The results of this analysis show that coal is taking a heavy toll on human life across large parts of the country. The study finds that in 2011-2012, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in  80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to total PM10 pollution.

Is this not a matter for concern? If this happens to India will it not happen to us?

Burning coal produces many more toxins other than carbon dioxide into the air to affect people living as much as 100 miles away from the power plant and the coal ash becomes a dangerous source of health hazards that persist for years as the toxic ash is carried by wind and water into local communities.

For instance, burning coal releases large amounts of the neurotoxin mercury into the air. Globally, coal-fired power plants are the single largest emitter of mercury emissions, accounting for over 50 percent of the mercury pollution caused by humans.

Once released, mercury settles in streams, lakes and rivers and on the earth itself, where it infiltrates the groundwater. From there, it enters the food chain via algae and infects all life forms, from minnows to predator fish to birds and mammals, whose diets include fish, it goes up the food chain, the concentration of mercury intensifies.

Emissions from the coal-burning power plants release the mercury into the atmosphere, which can travel thousands of miles before coming back to the Earth or the ocean. Billions of tons of coal being burned in Asia (especially India and China) have sent all the resulting mercury over the Pacific Ocean. Here it gets into the ocean’s food chain. The microorganisms in the sea convert this metallic mercury, which is not terribly hazardous, into another form of mercury called methyl mercury, which is very hazardous,”

All coal contains tiny amounts of mercury, but it adds up when millions and millions of tons of coal are burned each year. Plankton absorbs the mercury, which are then eaten by small fish, and up the food chain. Thus, the disturbing levels of mercury that are currently found in oceanic fish such as Tuna, Swordfish etc. actually comes from coal-burning power plants.

Eating more than a little of such fish is not recommended for pregnant women and very young children. A recent study demonstrated that In the baby’s brain, it kills neurones, it erodes the connections between cells and results in babies born with a three to eight points lower IQ than they should have had, They tend to have shorter attention spans, and behavior spans.

Although emissions of mercury and other toxic constituents in coal pose risks to health, it is the more conventional kinds of air pollution that are thought to create the largest health burdens in terms of heart and respiratory diseases. Of all the air pollutants from coal burning, the major killer seems to be exposure to small particles (particulate matter smaller than 2·5 ?m in aerodynamic diameter). A specialist in the area, Dr.Lockwood , has provided data on the toxicology and physiological effects of small particulate matter. His studies demonstrate how inhaling small particles might cause heart disease, stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes, IQ loss, and perhaps even diabetes.

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (GBD 2010) updates estimates for the effect of outdoor air pollution on health to more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide in 2010. More than 1 million of these deaths are estimated to occur in China alone, much because of coal.

According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 people a year die prematurely because of pollution from coal-fired power plants. And every year 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and an additional 550,000 asthma attacks result from power plant pollution.

As if this was not enough, there is the spectre of coal ash ensures that the polluting effects of coal burning continue for long periods after burning. Coal ash is the hazardous waste that remains after coal is burned. Dumped into unlined ponds or mines, the toxins readily leach into drinking water supplies. Piled into surface mounds it gets picked up by the wind and distributed for miles around. The toxins found in Coal ash are, Chromium, Selenium, Lead, Arsenic and Boron.

Chromium affects the Brain and Spine. Ingestion of chromium can cause stomach and intestinal ulcers, anemia, and stomach cancer. Frequent inhalation can cause asthma, wheezing, and lung cancer.

Will the persons promoting coal fired power plants,  also take responsibility for the acid rain will affect our heritage, from Anuradhapura to Dambulla ? Acid rain destroys stone monuments in the US, in India and China. Who in the CEB will provide this guarantee that it will not do so in Sri Lanka ?

Traveling round the world  I have seen and heard the damage wrought by Coal fired power plants and those that use poor quality cheap coal without scrubbers are truly horrible. Would it not have been nice to have some archeological experts in acid rain erosion to come and advise us before we took these investment steps? Are we purchasing the expensive ‘clean’ coal or the cheap ‘dirty’ coal for our use ? I do not think we need three guesses to figure that one out.

Is it due to political ignorance of the consequences of the processes that they embrace as ‘development’, ‘dirty coal’ ?  or is it more a case of ‘protecting ones personal profit ?’ It should become an issue of public interest.

None of the information presented above is presented to the Sri Lankan public, when the issue of power generation is raised. Why was this information considered when granting a clear EIA? I f this information is not considered in granting licenses to the coal fired power plants, we are heading for dire times ahead. On whose shoulders must lie the responsibility of stealing the health and well being of future generations ?

Related posts;

The Energy Trap part I


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Latest comments

  • 2

    Now that the deed is done, and coal-fire generators have been installed by successive governments (green, blue or pink) since independence, be it in Norochcholai (old name: Horagolla) or Sampur (Somapura), scientists need to find solutions to make the best out of a bad situation.

    The needed steps are (i)import only high quality coal as far as possible, (ii) re-direct the exhaust through filtering stacks that capture mercury, arsenic cadmium etc as these are valuable minerals. Use the carbon dioxide gas to grow algae in ponds and harvest the algae to make petroleum. This will also remove the carbon foot print of the emissions and avoid greenhouse gas contributions.

    The technical know-how for each of these exists. However, they need to be adapted to local conditions and set up so as to make the operation financially viable and indeed profitable. With such methods, coal-fired power stations can be made Eco-friendly and more profitable than the initial installation.

    But the powers that be do not listen to scientists. They have their own set of kattadiyas.

  • 2

    Thanks for the interesting article, Ranil.

    You provide strong argument for investing in renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. I suspect that some of the fear of mercury is exaggerated, though. Especially the links with behaviour problems and IQ.

  • 2

    Dr. Senanayake thank you very much.It is an intellectually rewarding article.The question for us Sri Lankans is do we die of poisoning, of lack of food or killed by our own Sinhala brotheren fighting for a space to live.The effects of 1977 – 2014 points to an expression ” late Sri Lanka”.Use of coal will only add to the problem. Our Buddhist priests can the perform the last rites en-mass. Thank you

  • 0

    Dr.Senanayake,To clarify my comment.It is reported that the CKD in the NCP is due to the presence of Cd and As.I think the ban on Glycophosate is a red herring.If Cd and As is the main cause and if they are found in the water in agri reservoirs I believe that it is dangerous situation, a situation due to negligence.The negligence is in that the quality of the fertilzer imported had not been checked.There are a number of organisations that should be held responsible.

    President Premadasa made it compulsory for the supplier to submit quality certificates at the time of bidding to supply

    That is only one aspect of the problem. If the Cd and As is found in the water, they should be found even in the soil (deposited silt) within the reservoirs.

    The only data I could find on the agro reservoirs in the NCP was in the Sunday Observer.Going by that data and a comment made by a Minister in the present Govt that the silt layer is 8ft (eight) below the water level I came to a very dangerous conclusion.The agro reservoirs have 86% (av) of the storage capacity full of silt.If that is so, what resources, what technology is available to clean the reservoirs ( both the water and the silt) of the presence of Cd and As?

    The second question that arise will the crops planted with the water from these reservoirs carry the deadly Cd and As.This leads to question, if the crop carry these two, will the problem of CKD spread to other areas? Will the people of the NCP be forced to migrate south, Can the south accommodate them ?

    We Dr Senanayake seems to be living in a make believe world?

  • 0

    Your erudition is admirable.
    However, may I say that identifying what is really a symptom as the problem does not get to the heart of the matter.
    Would you agree that as long as monumental corruption is the order of the day, all kinds of ecological degradation will prevail and, ultimately, kill many people in this country, if it hasn’t already begun to do?
    Do you not agree that the FIRST STEP is to get rid of rulers that not only preside over all this but ACTIVELY it for their own pecuniary gain?
    If you do, what are YOU prepared to do in that direction?

  • 0

    Emil, after watching all these people in action,there is hardly any choice.All of them jointly and severally ruined this country.

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