01 / 2011
In the years to come, India’s expanding steel production will be largely driven by sponge iron. But its manufacturing process, based on coal, is highly polluting. The repercussions are already visible near sponge iron factories which have mushroomed in iron ore- and coal-rich areas. People are protesting loudly, and in some cases even violently, while the pollution control agencies look the other way.
[…] Sometime in June 2009, the West Bengal chief minister’s office forwarded a complaint to the state pollution control board (SPCB) about three sponge iron factories in West Medinipur district.
A team was dispatched to Jhargram subdivision. It found a thick layer of grey dust coating trees and pathways, and noted that the factories stored iron ore and waste in the open; these are carried away by the wind. A month later, the state’s Pollution Control Appellate Authority indicted the three units for causing “colossal damage” to the environment and ordered immediate closure of one factory that was a repeat offender; the other two were asked to comply with pollution norms and guidelines. But the repeat offender— Rashmi Cement sponge iron plant—did not shut. Reason: the SPCB suspended the closure order, citing the appellate authority order that allowed the factory to operate once faults are rectified.
On December 18 that year, angry people reportedly set fire to some structures and vehicles at the Rashmi Cement plant. They claimed to be Maoists and said rampant pollution from the plant prompted them to act. The police pinned the incident on the resident who had complained about pollution and on a social activist. Naba Dutta, general secretary of nonprofit Nagarik Mancha of Kolkata, was arrested on August 17, 2010, while visiting the area to attend a sit-in protest organised by tribal people against sponge iron factories.
Dutta is out on bail. Rashmi Cement is still in business and pollution continues unabated.
Pollution fuels protests
The story played out in Jhargram is not unique. It is being repeated in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka where people are living in the shadow of sponge iron factories. Whether it is a remote village in Cuttack district of Odisha or a village in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh, residents are angry over government inaction. The protests are growing.
In Odisha, 500 women members of the Bonai Vana Suraksha Samiti Mandal, a people’s front in Sundargarh district, marched to the sub-collector’s office in January 2008. They were carrying samples of soil, contaminated water and grains as proof of damage caused by sponge iron factories. These factories have high stack emissions and dump ash and char in open areas. The district administration ordered an inquiry and 12 factories were closed, only to reopen 42 days later.
“Seventeen sponge iron factories are crammed in a five-km radius. We had to put our foot down,” said Ashwini Mohanta, chairperson of the front, which continues to organise protests. Odisha with 108 sponge iron factories— the maximum any state in India has—is witnessing similar protests in Sundargarh, Keonjhar and Sambalpur districts.
Pollution from these coal-based factories is more acute in Chhattisgarh. The state has close to 70 sponge iron factories, clustered mainly in Siltara and Urla in Raipur district and in Raigarh district. An estimated 60 more are operating illegally. The region is also the hub of public protests. In June 2009, about 300 people took to the streets to protest the health effects of pollution from the factories of Siltara and Urla. They complained of respiratory disorders and skin allergies. The authorities issued notices to 45 factories for not installing or using pollution control equipment.
“The Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board works under political and industrial pressure. When there are public protests, a notice is issued. What becomes of this notice, no one knows,” said Ganesh Kachhwaha of Zila Bachao Sangharsh Morcha in Raigarh. “These factories follow absolutely no laws. Their licences should be cancelled,” said BJP MLA Devji Bhai Patel from Raipur. A moratorium has now been imposed on new sponge iron factories in Siltara and Urla.
In Andhra Pradesh’s Mehboobnagar district, people moved court when protests and pleas to the government did not work. Initially no action was taken on the petition but later factories in the area were directed to jointly deposit Rs 3 crore with the district authorities as token compensation for farmers. The amount was decided on the basis of Kharif crop lost.
In Karnataka, angry residents attacked the Kundil Sponge Iron factory at Londa in Belgaum in November 2009. This was when the SPCB allowed it to resume operations a month after it was closed on high court orders. Protests are on in Bellary district, too, which has three sponge iron clusters.
These protests are happening because sponge iron is made through a process that is highly polluting and poorly regulated.
Weak rules, weaker regulators
[…] The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has classified sponge iron as red category industry which denotes its high potential to pollute. The classification means the industry needs strict pollution norms and guidelines and should be monitored and inspected regularly. On both these counts, the regulatory framework fails miserably.
Many a slip
The first step to tighten regulations on the industry was taken in 2006 when CPCB released a draft standard. It contained detailed emission and effluent standards, waste management measures and guidelines on locating factories. Two-and-a-half years later, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) notified a highly diluted version of the draft. A former CPCB officer who helped prepare the draft said MoEF watered down the standards “under pressure from states and the industry lobby”. Most of the guidelines were dropped before notification, he added.
The draft had suggested phasing out factories with less than 100 tonnes per day (TPD) capacity because such units can ill-afford clean technologies. The notification dropped this suggestion. The notification also decreased stack (chimney) height specification. CPCB had proposed a minimum height of 75 metres; the notification reduced it to 30 metres. Higher stacks mean emissions can be dispersed over a larger area, reducing their impact.
Fugitive emission standards, too, were toned down. These emissions, separate from stack emissions, arise from raw material and product handling and disposing of solid waste. It was fixed at 1,000 microgram per cubic metre (μg/m3). The notification relaxed this limit to 3,000 μg/m3 for existing factories, and 2,000 μg/m3 for new ones.
The notification’s biggest weakness is that it is silent on solid waste disposal. The draft had recognised char, kiln waste, scrubber and flue dust as solid waste and had prescribed strict recycling and reuse measures.
The rest of the CPCB recommendations now form a part of the Charter on Corporate Responsibility for Environmental Protection. These are guidelines meant for various industrial sectors and are voluntary in nature.
Even after the diluted standards came into force in May 2008, record for enforcing these standards and their compliance is abysmal. “It is too soon to allege the industry is one of the biggest polluters and no action is taken against them,” said an MoEF official. But reality is different. The Nova Iron Factory in Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur district, for instance, showed stack suspended particulate matter (SPM) at 2,292 mg/m3, as per an inspection record of June 2009. The limit for stack SPM is 100 mg/m3. […] Another factory, Shiv Metallics, in Sundargarh district of Odisha, showed ambient air SPM of 2,025 μg/m3 which is about 20 times the present standard. No action was taken against the two, and the list of such factories is unending.
Another reason for pollution is proximity between sponge iron factories. These usually grow in clusters in the vicinity of areas rich in iron ore deposits and coal. The voluntary guidelines on location of factories are ignored, leading to conflicts between industry owners and residents. The guidelines state the distance between two sponge iron factories should be five km for those with 100 TPD capacity or more. The guidelines also specify a minimum distance of one km between the factories and human settlements. In places like Sundargarh district in Odisha and Raipur district in Chhattisgarh, these factories are right next to residential areas.
When asked about enforcing site guidelines, MoEF officials said they could not do much as land is a state subject. “We provided the basic guidelines so that states can formulate policies accordingly. Compliance with guidelines has to be ensured by SPCBs and the states,” a ministry official said.
Activists say the main reason for rapid growth of the sector is the willingness of states to subsidise inputs, easy access to market and availability of cheap raw material and labour. […]
CSE study exposes shortcomings
In 2009, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi non-profit, studied compliance with environmental norms in the sponge iron sector. It is the biggest sample study in the country so far ; a total of 204 factories were scrutinised on the basis of inspection reports. These were collected from SPCBs of four states where sponge iron industry is dominant—Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal. […]
Analysis of the data in these reports threw up startling results. For one, it showed how inadequate monitoring is. The SPCBs inspected sponge iron factories once or twice a year; the CPCB guidelines specify they should be monitored every quarter. […] He said neither the CPCB nor the SPCBs have sufficient manpower to monitor each and every factory. So, the effort has to come from the industry. NGOs could also keep a tab on defaulters, he added.
ESPs absent or not used
About 10 per cent of the factories studied were operating without an ESP in the main kiln which is a prerequisite for a factory to start production. This means the SPCBs did not inspect factory premises before production started. […] Data shows, 37 per cent of the factories had non-functional or partially functional ESPs. Even where ESPs were in running condition, leakage of emissions from kilns were recorded in 60 per cent inspection reports. […]
The night inspection reports showed higher non-compliance : 100 per cent factories were bypassing ESPs, operating their ESPs partially at night or not at all, and releasing emissions into the air. A Karnataka SPCB official said sponge iron factories “save electricity by shutting down ESPs at night”.
Pollution monitoring from stacks is also infrequent. […] The stack monitoring reports also show 26 per cent factories flouting emission standards. West Bengal topped the list with 52 per cent factories failing to meet emission standards. […]
Inspection reports showed 42 per cent factories failed to meet ambient air quality standards. In Chhattisgarh, the highest ambient SPM was recorded near the Kalindi Ispat factory in Bilaspur district— 1,129 μg/m3. The standard for ambient air quality is 100 μg/m3.
The factories also fail to comply with other parameters like fugitive emission norms and disposing and handling solid waste. The waste is supposed to be covered and stored; 80 per cent factories were storing it in the open and many of them were dumping char outside their premises.
If one takes into account all compliance conditions, close to 50 per cent factories were found non-compliant on the day inspections were conducted. But these inspections are infrequent. The highest level of non-compliance was found in Chhattisgarh—a whopping 100 per cent. West Bengal, with a non-compliance rate of 41 per cent, is second.
A formality called notices
Pollution control agencies have a standard procedure for dealing with factories defying pollution norms. They issue show cause notices; when offences are repeated, closure notices are sent. But are these an effective deterrent? The answer is no. […] In spite of the notices, many factories remained repeat offenders. […]
The cycle follows a routine. SPCB inspects a factory and issues show cause notice for not complying with norms. In the next inspection, the factory is again found violating the norms and issued closure notice. The third inspection report states the faults have been rectified and the closure notice is suspended.
A retired CPCB official said issuing notices and withdrawing them is a means to collect bribes from the factories. In some cases, bank guarantees of factories issued closure notices are forfeited. But the guarantee amounts are usually meagre and hardly a deterrent.
This article is available in French: La croissance sale du fer réduit direct
Editing: Valérie FERNANDO
Articles et dossiers
This article is an abstract from Sugandh JUNEJA’s report: « Sponge iron’s dirty growth », in Down To Earth, Jan 31, 2011