Coal Ash Barges in India Continue to Capsize, Jeopardizing Public Health, Mangroves, Fishers

The latest barge to capsize with coal ash en route from India to Bangladesh   

By Julia Fine

Since March, five barges filled with toxic fly ash have capsized en route from India to Bangladesh, according to Rishika Pardikar last week in The Third Pole.  Just last month, a barge transporting over 800 tons of the pulverized coal product sank in a waterway on the edge of the Sundarbans, threatening the largest mangrove ecosystem in the world.  The fly ash, which is used to make cement in Bangladesh, is particularly harmful in river systems such as those of the Sundarbans, an area that contains a highly endangered Bengal tiger reserve and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Why This Matters: Rivers are often touted as an environmentally friendly and cheap mode of transportation – even here in the U.S. (e.g., the Mississippi River). But there are many other users who rely on these waterways in India for fishing and other livelihoods. Without strict pollution-control laws, enforcement, and safety checks on the rising number of vessels that carry toxic cargo such as fly ash, accidents like these in India are increasing. In the Sundarbans, these preventable disasters can be deadly to precious biodiversity, as well as devastating to the people there. This is another reason to be concerned about coal power in the region.

Mind the Mangroves

The Sundarbans, straddling the border between India and Bangladesh, is an ecosystem critical to both countries in a number of ways. First, the mangroves protect the interior of the countries against cyclones, helping quell some of the impacts of the storms. Secondly, the ecosystem contains important biodiversity of both flora and fauna. Finally, the Sundarbans is home itself to 7.5 million people, many of whom rely upon fishing to generate income.

As Subhrajit Goswami reported in Impact News, as of yet there is “no record that an environmental impact assessment has been done to ascertain the environmental and social risk involved in transporting fly ash through the Sundarbans,” nor has there been any record that “community consultation has taken place with fishing communities to inform them about the nature of goods being transported and its likely impact.”

Multiple Environmental Threats

Sheikh Rokon of Riverine People, an environmental NGO in the region, explained that this most likely the result of “irregular and low water levels in the rivers, use of old, worn-out vessels, and lack of route maintenance and overloading.” In addition to the sinking barges, the Sundarbans faces a number of other environmental threats. Last year, the Bangladeshi government proposed building a coal-powered thermal plant just north of the mangrove ecosystem. This proposal was decried both by scientists and activists as being harmful to the Sundarbans, but as of yet the government has not scrapped the idea. This month, Human Rights Watch released a dispatch detailing the consequences such a plant would have on climate change both globally and locally.

Bangladesh is also building many new cement factories and because it does not have many coal plants, it depends on India for fly ash.  There is usually no clean-up or recovery effort — the vessels are just abandoned because rescue operations are more expensive than the vessels themselves.  And according to Parkdikar, studies have shown that fly ash contains up to 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.

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