Visiting Cheyyur in Tamil Nadu, INDIA
Dr. Heidi W. Weiskel, Staff Scientist
Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide
In my town of Eugene, in the state of Oregon, USA, community members are rallying to oppose the potential transport of coal on trains that run through the city multiple times a day, out of fear of dangerous air pollution from coal dust. Coal dust can exacerbate breathing difficulties like asthma, cause tissue changes in the lungs, and in acute cases, contribute to emphysema, fibrosis, or cancer. The coal from the Pacific Northwest will be transported to our coast, and shipped out for consumption “overseas.”
Overseas. Thirteen thousand and one hundred kilometers away, the community members surrounding the potential site for the Cheyyur ultra mega coal-fired power project along the coast of Tamil Nadu, India, are also bracing themselves against the arrival of coal dust. And not only coal dust. Coal emissions, a jetty and shipping port, a coal yard, railroad, truck road, and coal ash pond. In short, a tremendous amount of air, water, soil, thermal, noise and light pollution.
In exchange for this sacrifice, they will lose access to the open beaches they have been using for generations to launch their boats and mend and dry their nets. Gone will be the thick forest, harboring many species of birds, mammals, and plants. Gone will be the tranquility, the clean air, agricultural activity, the savannah, and the productive and biologically diverse Cheyyur Lagoon.
Last month, I had the honor to travel to the beach community that would be most affected by this short-sighted, profoundly unjust project. I was given an expert tour of the project site by Shweta Narayan, one of our ELAW partners from the organization Community Environmental Monitoring, and Saravanan Kasi, a leader from the nearby fishing village of Urur Kuppam and a petitioner on the case against the Cheyyur plant. Part of the tour included a meeting with the other petitioner on the case, Mr. Marimuthhu. I was moved by his determination and by the justness of his position, and I felt panic for the communities here as I imagined the first ship offloading, coal dust flying, and people starting to fall sick as the plant began operation.
My site visit revealed that the footprint for this project is enormous, covering substantially more acres than the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) indicated. I learned that the route and location for the pipeline and holding pond that will contain the wet, toxic coal ash waste have not yet been determined, meaning the EIA was incomplete and inaccurate. I also realized how close to the ocean the storage pile for the coal coming off the ships would be. The coastline of Tamil Nadu endured a massive tsunami a decade ago this year. If the coal pile and coal-fired power plant had been in place, the destruction in the area would have been far greater, and far more toxic. Finally, I saw how the Cheyyur Lake was a living body of water—flooding and retreating 100s of meters—in response to the tides and the seasons. The air was filled with the sounds of birds, insects, waves, and voices.
Objectively, we now know coal is a dirty, dangerous, outdated source of energy. Yet the US hopes to export what Asia hopes to import, and the pressure to exploit this carbon resource remains profound. We know better. At some point, we will do better. I hope it is in time to protect the communities near Eugene and the Cheyyur plant.