Youth group Chennai Climate Action Group member release the study on air quality around the Ennore-Manali industrial cluster | Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

It’s Diwali Everyday in Polluted Chennai’s Ennore-Manali industrial corridor

For 17-year old G. Santosh, who lives near Tamil Nadu’s fossil fuel capital in Manali, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s appeal to go easy on Diwali firecrackers must sound like a bad joke.

“Every day of the year is Diwali for us because of industries in polluted Ennore-Manali,” Santosh says. The youngster was among five city youth from Chennai Climate Action Group who released a report that highlighted how large hazardous industries operated in violation of air pollution norms and got away with it. The study, based on Right to Information data relating to stack emissions of pollutants like sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, found that six major polluting industries in the region had operated in violation of statutory emission norms for 59% of the time in 2019. “Regulation of industries by TNPCB is a myth,” the report announced.

The region is already over-polluted with a high concentration of large polluting industries. The predominantly working class neighbourhood of North Chennai, with a higher than average proportion of Scheduled and Backward Caste population, stretches from the Manali petrochemical area to the Ennore thermal power plant cluster and houses 34 large Red Category industries, the city’s largest garbage dump and three major ports.

The study analysed over 1.8 million hours of stack emissions data from the chimney stacks of TANGEDCO’s North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) Stage I, NTECL Vallur power plant, Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd (CPCL), Tamilnadu Petroproducts Ltd (TPL), Manali Petrochemicals Ltd (MPL), and Madras Fertilisers Ltd (MFL). Owing to their air-pollution intensive nature, TNPCB has directed these industries to install continuous real-time emissions monitors atop their chimney stacks and report the readings simultaneously to TNPCB’s CARE Air Centre. “When the emission levels exceed the norms, an inbuilt alarm system has been established to inform the concerned industry and the District Environmental Engineer/Member Secretary through automated SMS for remedial action immediately,” TNPCB claims. The findings, however, reveal that industries operate in violation of air pollution norms without fear of reprisal by TNPCB.

Key Findings of the study:
– The 10.5 million tonne/year refinery complex run by CPCL — arguably the largest point source of air pollution in the state — operated in violation of emission standards for 65 % of the time in 2019.
– Madras Fertilisers Ltd violated air pollution norms for 77% of the year. Despite being a source of frequent ammonia leaks, MFL failed to monitor ammonia emissions for 71% of the year. Similarly, emissions of hydrogen fluoride, a deadly acidic Bhopal-like gas, were also not monitored for 62% of the time. HF gas leaks can cause widespread destruction if left undetected or if early warning mechanisms fail.
– TANGEDCO’s NCTPS Stage I violated emission norms for 58% of the year, with Unit 1 posting non compliant operations for 88% of the period.
NTECL Vallur disregarded emission standards for 41% of the year. Emissions of toxic SO2 exceeded permissible limits 82% of the year.

Polluting industrialisation is set to intensify in this region. At least 3000 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity, a plastics industrial estate, a chemical industrial township in Ponneri, and a 320 tonne per annum port by Adani (8 times the combined capacity of the Chennai and Kamarajar Ports), and more roads are just a few projects planned to be set up in the wetlands in this region.

“Our area is already very polluted. We can’t handle any more pollution here,” said J. Janani, a 12th standard student whose house is hemmed in by smoke-spewing industrial chimneys. “Despite the concentration of industries, there is only one air pollution monitor for the entire region,” Janani says, referring to the single continuous ambient air quality monitor operated by CPCB. “Chennai Corporation must use a major portion of the Rs. 80 crore it got from the union government to clean up the air in Ennore-Manali,” she said.

Chennai Climate Action Group has called for a moratorium on the expansion of polluting activities in the region, and suggested that the Greater Chennai Corporation must consider installing at least 100 low-cost air quality monitors in the pollution hotspot. Increased monitoring, swift and tough action against non-compliant industries, and a tight leash on TNPCB to ensure that the regulator enforces the law are essential if the pollution and disease burden in the region are to be brought down, according to the youth group. “The government’s decision to continue allowing more polluting industries to come up in this over-polluted region with a high percentage of Scheduled Caste communities is a case of environmental casteism. This level of pollution and impunity will not be tolerated in better off parts of Chennai,” said CCAG volunteer J. Prasanth.

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