Report: 76 major coal ash accidents in the last decade in India, yet regulatory norms being diluted

A new report by Healthy Energy Initiative India and Community Environmental Monitoring establishes that at least 76 major coal ash pond accidents occurred across the country between 2010 and June 2020.

The report titled “Coal ash in India – A compendium of disasters, environmental and health risks” states that these accidents have caused deaths and loss of property and resulted in extensive pollution of nearby water sources, air and soil. While this data alludes to almost more than one coal ash related major incident every other month in the last decade, the report claims that this is just the tip of the iceberg as a lot of “routine” incidents of fly ash spills which occur on a regular basis go unreported.

States like Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra with highest concentrations with coal fired thermal power plants top the list of coal ash accidents. Since a large number of power plants are located close to water bodies like rivers or the coast, the common ash discharge flows directly into them bypassing holding ponds.

Shweta Narayan, Coordinator of Healthy Energy Initiative India said, “While mining and coal burning have received their fair share of attention, the dangers of coal ash and the impacts of its disposal are still under the radar. The public outrage associated with coal ash pollution remains limited to big disasters. The slow poisoning of communities living around ash containment ponds goes unnoticed. This report provides an overview of the management of coal ash in India and the threat it poses to health and environment due its mismanagement”.

The report tracks dilutions in regulatory framework of coal ash management over the years, which has allowed power producers to further flout environmental safeguards and public health protocols:

  • Washing of coal was mandatory to reduce ash content and notifications to this effect were passed in 1997, 1998 and 1999. Subsequently the government issued a gazette notification on 2nd January 2014 making coal washing mandatory for supply to all thermal units more than 500 km from the coal mine. However, on 21st May 2020, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) made coal washing optional through a controversial amendment based on economic rationale offered by India’s NITI Aayog and ministries of Power and Coal. This rationale, however, does not account for the resulting increase in the fly ash generation and pollution caused from it.
  • In the year 2000 the classification of fly ash was shifted from the category of “Hazardous Industrial waste” to the category of “Waste material”. No supporting health based scientific rationale has been provided by the ministry on the issue of recategorization.
  • The 1999 Fly Ash notification mandates the utilisation of fly ash for cement, concrete blocks, bricks, panels and similar materials or for the construction of roads, embankments, dams or for any other construction activities within a radius of 300 km from thermal power stations (TPPs). The aim of the original notification and subsequent amendments and the Fly Ash Mission launched in 1994 was also to achieve 100% utilisation of fly ash within a specified period. Despite these efforts only 77% of the fly ash however has been utilised as of 2018-19. The report highlights that the term “utilisation” is a misnomer for some of the “uses” like filling of low-lying area reclamation and mine void filling are actually means of disposal. Despite government approval, certain uses of fly ash like mine void filling, low lying area reclamation and agricultural use were prohibited under the Environment Clearance (EC) conditions for power plants. However, according to the report, “the latest amendment of August 2019 reverses such EC conditions”.

According to the Ministry of Power’s Central Electricity Authority (CEA), India generated 217.04 million metric tons of ash in 2018-19. This figure is expected to cross 600 million metric tons by 2032. Coal ash is known to contain toxic chemicals like arsenic, aluminum, antimony, barium, cadmium, selenium, nickel, lead and molybdenum among other carcinogens. Along with the increased risk of cancers from toxic heavy metal exposure, coal ash can affect human development, create lung and heart problems, cause stomach ailments, and contribute to premature mortality. Health studies conducted among communities living close to coal mines and coal ash ponds in Chhattisgarh, India, revealed increased incidences of chronic health conditions such as hair loss and brittle hair; joint pain, body ache and backache; dry, itchy and/or discoloured skin and cracked sole, and dry cough. Higher cases of kidney and gastrointestinal complaints have also been reported.

Dr Manan Ganguli, Healthcare consultant from Cambridge, UK said, “Coal ash overall is a deadly poison that looks harmless. Typically, coal ash consists of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, hexavalent chromium among other carcinogens and neurotoxins. Studies have also linked fly ash with radiation exposure among workers and public. The only way to be safe is not to burn coal”.

Since Indian regulations do not recognize coal ash as hazardous waste, the power companies cut costs of maintaining engineered landfills for scientific disposal of fly ash. As a result, coal fly ash is routinely dumped in open lands, unlined and uncovered pits in close proximity to the power plants. Over a period of time the ash piles up and power companies reinforce the embankments of such ash disposal areas with the same fly ash. Given that these are unlined areas where the ash is dumped, the toxins from the ash seep into the ground and contaminate groundwater. It is also seen that such ash ponds regularly give way, either due to excessive weight of the ash piled up or during monsoons as embankments breach discharging huge quantities of ash in the neighboring areas including homes, villages, agricultural lands and water bodies. During dry seasons, these ash ponds become a source of air pollution, as dust storms carry huge clouds of ash into the environment.

Jagat Narayan Vishwakarma, Petitioner, National Green Tribunal said, “In the last 2 years, the Singrauli region has witnessed ash dyke breaches by plants maintained by power producers like Essar, NTPC and Reliance Power. These accidents have been recurring due to negligence of the companies. Villagers have repeatedly reported that the boundaries of these ashponds are weak but there is no action. This region has experienced years of air, water and soil pollution due to the unchecked industrial development, which has cost the communities living here not only property but long standing health impacts“.

Out of the total 217 million tons of coal ash generated in the year 2018-19, only 168 million tons (77.5%) was utilised. Of the fly ash utilised, a majority, 26.8%, was used for cement manufacturing, 13.5% for reclamation of low-lying areas, 9.96% was used for bricks, blocks and tiles manufacturing, 9.94% for ash dyke raising, 4.48% was used in highways and flyovers and 4.65% in mine filling. Suggested utilisation of fly ash for filling low lying areas or converting them into bricks etc raises several concerns about the fate of toxins in fly ash once encapsulated into these products. It has so far been a controversial topic without a conclusive scientific consensus. Data in the report also reveals that more than a billion tons of legacy ash remains unutilised in ponds and mounds all over the country.


Policy Recommendations:

  • Fixing accountability and making sure that power plants that burn coal and generate coal ash take responsibility for safe management and the environmental health impacts emerging out of its utilization, disposal and reuse.
  • Create a robust monitoring mechanism that includes participation of communities residing next to power plants, to ensure that all ash generated is accounted for. In an event that there is ash discharged in the environment or unaccounted for then there are further defined mechanisms for remediation and paying up for health and environmental damages under polluter pays principle.
  • India urgently needs to develop regulations for the scientific containment of pond ash. This would require retrofitting existing ash ponds with impermeable HDPE liners and linking the scientific landfilling of ash with environmental clearances. This would also entail a rigorous environmental monitoring protocol around the fly ash dumps to check for leachate and contamination of groundwater.
  • Remediation of all ash contaminated sites should be carried out as per the guidance document developed by the MoEFCC under the National Program for Rehabilitation of Polluted Sites (NPRPS) and strict fines should be levied on polluters for coal ash pollution in the environment and for health damages.


Contact Details:
Gunjan Jain –
Shweta Narayan –


About Healthy Energy Initiative and Community Environmental Monitoring:
The Healthy Energy Initiative (HEI) is led by Health Care Without Harm and comprises a network of partners made up of health professionals, health organizations, and academic research institutions, from around the world. The Healthy Energy Initiative in India is coordinated by Community Environmental Monitoring (CEM), a program of The Other Media. Based in Chennai, CEM addresses the plight of pollution impacted communities through environmental health monitoring skills training, information and organizing technical support, and emergency response services.

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