New Delhi: A soda ash manufacturing project likely to lead to higher pollution levels and endanger the local ecosystem in Gujarat has been put on hold because of inadequacies in its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), as highlighted by documents available on the website of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change of India (MoEF&CC).
Proposed by the Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Limited (GHCL) — an arm of the Dalmia Group — the project plans to set up a large soda ash manufacturing unit in Mandvi taluk’s village of Bada, off the coast of Kachchh. Soda ash is popularly used in making detergents, glass, and ceramics.
The project, estimated to cost Rs 3,500 crore, is likely to cause higher levels of air pollution and release treated effluents into the Arabian Sea, according to company plans.
As part of the environmental clearance process, GHCL submitted its EIA report along with public comments to the central government on 24 November.
However, on 7 December, M. Ramesh, member secretary of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), returned the proposal and asked the company for more details before allowing the project to proceed.
The EAC is an autonomous body under the Union environment ministry and is in-charge of vetting projects before recommending them for environmental clearance.
“The EAC has not discussed the proposal yet, since they have been asked to submit further details. What has been asked for follows what is laid down in the EIA Notification, and they must reply with the requisite documents,” a member of the EAC who wished to not be named told ThePrint. “Once the correct documents are received, it can go to the EAC for further discussion. If they fail to produce the appropriate documents, the project could be delisted,” he added.
Residents and environmental activists have opposed the project for months, citing the pollution it will likely bring to the area as well as alleged flaws in the way the EIA was carried out. They also claim that the agencies that carried out the EIA — National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) — were not appropriately accredited.
The panel has asked GHCL for the accreditation certificates of the two agencies.
According to information available on the National Accreditation Board for Education and Training (NABET) website, neither NEERI nor NIO is authorised to conduct EIA studies for the soda ash industry.
In a statement to ThePrint on 4 January, GHCL said, “At the time of decision making, no other EIA consultants having a NABET-accreditation for Soda Ash were notified. Accordingly, CSIR-NEERI, which are NABET-accredited, were selected by GHCL. Here, NIO is merely a consultant hired for technical additional studies on marine environment and oceanography and not for conducting the entire EIA. GHCL has appointed them as they have carried out studies previously for similar soda ash plants.”
It went on to claim that the treated effluents from the soda ash plant are “compatible” with the sea body system, adding, “In fact, certain elements of these effluents are already available in the sea or seabed. A slew of studies and research papers suggest it supports marine life and good fishery.”
GHCL also said it will install requisite air pollution control systems — scrubbers, dust collectors, and desulphurisation equipment, among others — to control fumes released from the unit.
In a previous statement to The Probe, GHCL said it was committed to “maximising value for all our stakeholders, which includes society, vendors, customers, employees, and investors”.
“For society, GHCL Foundation Trust is carrying out various CSR activities in the areas of healthcare, agriculture and animal husbandry, education, and skill development. More than three lakh people living around our areas of operations have been positively impacted through our various initiatives,” the statement said.
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‘Flawed’ impact assessment
The area around the Bada village is characterised by open grasslands and open scrub vegetation, with a beach located less than a kilometer away from the proposed site. It has seen no industrial activity so far, and most inhabitants depend on agriculture, residents say.
“There’s no pollution at all where we live, and we want it to stay that way,” Bharat Gala, a resident of Bada village who splits his time between Mumbai and Bada, told ThePrint over the phone.
He added that residents had collectively lodged a complaint with NABET — one of two agencies responsible for providing accreditation to higher education institutions in India — about NEERI and NIO’s lack of accreditation.
The NAB responded on 1 December saying it will look into the matter, he added.
Apart from accreditation certificates, the EAC has also asked GHCL to furnish proof of coastal and forest clearances, as well as to translate the public comments received on 25 November into English, shows the document available on MoEF&CC. The public comments are currently available on the State Pollution Board website in Gujarati.
According to the EIA, which was conducted between October 2018 and January 2019, no turtles were observed off the coast of Bada — a claim heavily contested by locals.
In an undated letter he wrote to the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Valji Jasraj Gadhvi, a wildlife enthusiast and a resident of the nearby Kathda village, listed various endangered species — ranging from chinkara, hyenas and caracals, to the spiny-tailed lizard — that can be found in the area.
He also attached photographs and past government reports as “proof”.
According to a response to an RTI that Gadhvi filed in March this year, the local forest department rescued 8,548 sea turtle eggs between 2011 and 2021.
ThePrint has seen the letter and RTI replies.
Gadhvi claims the area is a nesting site for the endangered olive ridley and green sea turtles.
“It is also surprising that the EIA doesn’t mention peacocks at all when there are at least 500 in the area,” he told ThePrint. “This is a clean beach. The endangered green sea turtles come to lay their eggs here. Having any polluting plant will destroy this wildlife.”
The project’s wildlife conservation plan acknowledges the presence of some wildlife in the area. However, the report also claims that its “primary observations” suggest that the coast near the proposed project site may not be suitable for turtle nesting “due to narrow supra tidal region, steep slope, dense vegetation, and presence of predators such as dogs and jackals”.
“Though our observations suggest that there may be no or negligible probability of sea turtle nesting, a proper systematic study shall be carried out to find out the exact status of sea turtle nesting in the study area through an expert,” the GHCL plan says.
In addition to the threats posed to the local wildlife, the plant is projected to produce 11 lakh tonnes of light soda ash, 5 lakh tonnes of dense soda ash, and 2 lakh tonnes of sodium bicarbonate per annum, according to the plan. A coal or lignite-fired power plant is to power the operation, leading to higher pollution in the area.
The company also plans to lay underground pipes.
“GHCL proposes to lay underground intake and outfall pipes and release effluents and water which will be at least 5 degrees warmer than the natural water temperatures. This will definitely have a grave impact not only on the nesting of the sea turtles but also on the fish nesting sites along the coast,” said Dhwani Shah, a Gujarat-based environmental researcher.
Gala, the resident quoted above, said a public consultation held on 17 October went on for over 11 hours because of the resistance from the local community.
EIA’s past ‘violations’ flagged by CAG
This is not the first time that the EIA process has come under scrutiny — in fact, the allegations surrounding the soda ash project point to a deeper malaise in the environmental and coastal clearance process itself.
On 8 August, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India released a report on the oversight involved in the process. CAG said in its findings that projects had been granted clearances despite the EIA consultants lacking accreditation — an allegation also made in the current case.
The CAG also identified 14 instances of environment clearance being granted when the EIA failed to identify biodiversity hotspots, and another 12 where the EIA relied on outdated data.
The scale of violations made it “imperative to assess the implementation” of the process, the CAG report said.
(This report has been updated with a statement from GHCL)
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
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