The Mormugao port has something in common with Norfolk port in Virginia, USA. Both have coal berths and areas around it suffer from coal dust pollution. Norfolk is the number one port in the USA for export of coal and has a handling capacity of 20 million tonnes.
Besides, coal is transported to the port in open rail cars. Recently, the Union Environment Ministry cleared a proposal by the Jindal group to double its coal handling capacity from 7.5 million to 14 million tonnes at the port.
Naturally, everyone, especially greens, are up in arms and there is talk of challenging the environmental clearance before the National Green Tribunal.
Import of coal and transport to the interior is linked to doubling of the railway track from Mormugao to Hospet. So, yes, it is complicated.
Let’s face it, coal is dirty and ports that handle coal are also dirty, most of the time. Wind carries coal dust across the port city, which has a population of around 1,38,000.
As coal is transported by rail, coal dust affects several villages along the route so the heartburn over doubling the coal handling capacity is understandable.
Only those who live in Mormugao or along the route experience the pollution caused by coal dust, the rest of us can understand and sympathise. But, can we say no to coal and keep a clean conscience?
Consider this, Goa consumes 600 MW of power (approx). A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that it takes 2 million tonnes of coal to light up the state throughout the year.
This means somebody in another part of the country is living with coal dust and pollution from coal thermal power plants so that we can light up our homes and keep our state clean.
What do you think would happen if Goa was asked to generate its own power? Whether coal is required by the Jindals or the Adanis is immaterial. Truth is, it is required by the power and steel industry and we can no longer behave like petulant children demanding that somebody else should bear the burden of our carbon footprint.
We cannot demand that coal be imported by some other port in India. That option no longer exists because we cannot be consumers of power and steel and at the same time let someone else breathe the polluted air created by our consumption.
Yes, we can challenge the green clearance granted by the environment ministry and we can continue to protest. That is our legal right.
But what we also need is a scientific study, not anecdotal, on lung-related illnesses in Mormugoa and surrounding areas. We need a scientific study on coal dust pollution in the port city and the transportation route. And then we need to look at mitigation measures.
Water sprinkling is a universally accepted mitigation measure, but its effect is limited. Covering of coal piles and areas where the commodity is transported. Covering of rail cars is essential. In this respect, the port authorities might want to look at the shelved plan to build an iron ore hub at Neura.
The port needs to now consider wind fences. A steel pelletisation plant in the Middle East built a 2.6 km long wind fence (20 mts high) to prevent pollution from its stockpiles. A cement plant in Adelaide, Australia, used the same solution.
There are a lot of industries that are dirty and, sadly, we cannot wish them away. The only way ahead is to find a solution that mitigates the pollution generated. Of course, it would be ideal if all polluting industries are shut, but then how would we have built a bridge across the Zuari without steel, cement and power?