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September 11, 2013

Families Near Huge India Coal Plant Deserve Reparations

SmogLocals in Gujarat, on India's western coast, might soon receive the reparations they deserve from the construction of the 4,000-megawatt Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant, which sits dangerously close to their homes and to another massive 4,800 MW coal plant. The plant has received support from the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation (IFC) and on Thursday, the World Bank management is expected to respond to a complaint from community members who were clearly harmed by the coal plan. If the Bank lives up to President Jim Yong Kim's promise to protect public health and fight climate change, then the Bank will compensate these local residents for the losses they incurred from the deadly coal project.

Each year, the plant burns approximately 13 million tons of coal and fills the atmosphere with 40 million tons of carbon pollution, two million tons of toxic ash, and hundreds of thousands of tons of sulphur oxides and other toxic gases. The effects of Tata Mundra are far-reaching, harming not only the environment, but the people living in the area.

A June 2012 study, The Real Cost of Power, by an independent fact-finding team that was headed by the former Chief Justice of Sikkim High Court, S N Bhargava, looked at the social, environmental, and economic effects of the Mundra coal plant. The team visited the area twice, including several different villages, spoke with local women and experts, and examined the intake and outfall channels of the coal plant. The area where the coal plant is located is one of the few local areas with safe groundwater for drinking and agriculture, as well as high biodiversity, including a vast intertidal zone, mangroves, coral reefs, mudflats, seaweeds, commercial fish, and rare marine species.

"When large-scale industrial developments take place in such sensitive ecological zones and amidst such a thriving, natural-resource dependent rural economy, it is very likely that massive damage will be done to these fragile ecosystems and the nature-dependent societies," the report states.

The study found the introduction of industrialization to the area has had drastic effects on the area, both environmentally and economically. Fishermen and their families have been using these lands for generations to fish and support themselves economically, but pollution and hot water discharge from the power plant have caused the fishing industry to suffer. The fish catches have fallen drastically as a result of a decrease in water quality and the destruction of the mangroves and creeks. The World Bank is supposed to anticipate and evaluate these types of impacts, but the fishing communities were not consulted or recognized when Tata Mundra was constructed, a clear violation of Bank policies.

Even worse, locals are forced to deal with the health effects of breathing contaminated air and drinking contaminated water. Coal ash from the plant is known to contain heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, selenium, and mercury, and produce suspended particulate matter, which is known to cause health problems, especially among children and the elderly. These toxic chemicals can build up in both human and animal bodies, which also affect the fish that are caught in this area and sold in India and abroad.

Local fishing communities have organized themselves as a group called MASS (Machhimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan, meaning the "Association for the Struggle for Fishworkers' Rights"). They lodged a complaint against the coal plant with the World Bank Group’s compliance arm, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), and the CAO agreed that the complaint had enough merit to warrant an investigation. While the results of this investigation are not public, the World Bank management’s response to the CAO report is expected on Thursday, at which time we will know if the Bank will hold itself accountable for the clear harm it has supported by financing this project.

"This polluter project is one of the worst of its kind. In 2012 alone, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in up to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to their pollution," said Joe Athialy from Bank Information Center, citing a 2012 Greenpeace India report. "Children and families living near the Mundra coal plant cannot go on living like this -- their health and livelihoods depend on Dr. Kim listening to their pleas."

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International

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