Environmental Impacts of Coal Mining and The regulatory framework for Environmental Management

by Jitesh Kadian

Introduction :

Utilization and exploitation of any fuel resources, be it coal, uranium, natural gas or oil, needs proper measures, safeguards and regulations. Extraction of coal was primarily used for generating electricity. Coal mining in India was strictly under the private sectors. Coal Mining under private ownership suffered to a great extent due to lack of scientific methods, undiscriminating mining practices and poor living standards of the miners. The first published reference of coal mining in India dates back to the year 1774 when coal mining on a small scale was started in the Raniganj coalfield, and the policy of ‘more-hole-more-coal’ took a toll on the environment. It is a well-known fact that any mining activity takes away something from the ecosystem, and causes irreversible damage to the environment such as animal habitats, landscapes, quality of air and water, etc. 

Considerable damage to the ecosystem of the country had already been done while much needed investment for the growth of the mining industry fell short at the hands of the private sectors of the country. This led to the significant development in early 1970s i.e.,The Nationalization of coal mines, excepting a few captive mines of Tata Iron and Steel Company and Indian Iron and Steel Company enabled proper planning of mines on sounds technical lines. It was only after the 1973 energy crisis in India that a Fuel Policy Committee was set up for identifying the growing requirements of energy for the country and coal was declared as the primary source of energy. Mining is paramount to economic development of a country, but it also causes tremendous impact on the health and well-being of the environment, which also includes the socio-cultural aspects of people involved in such projects and also on people getting affected or displaced due to such activities.

Environmental Impacts of Coal Mining :

“Mining activity exerts tremendous pressure on local flora and fauna, and its effect on the ground water level and land are of great concern. Mines destroy forests and soils. The environmental impact of coal mining varies to a great extent at different stages, such as the pre-operational and post-operational stages. Each stage has their own set of negative impacts. One of the greatest impact is on the habitat destruction of human beings, animals and plants. In one of the article published by the Centre for Science and Environment it has been stated that “Mining is a temporary land use and economic activity, but there is nothing temporary or small-scale about its impact.The impact is large-scale and permanent in nature – environmental contamination,  high mortality rates, extensive degradation to the overall ecosystem. 

Burning of coal releases harmful substances such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide which triggers extreme air and water pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), mercury which is produced at the coal-fired power plants, is toxic to the developing brain, and poses a ‘global environmental threat to humans and wildlife’. Subsidence due to underground mining activities is another threat to the topography of the land and water system as it lowers the water-table by changing the flow of groundwater. 

“Substantial portion of India’s mineral wealth is located under the country’s forests”. This signifies loss of forest cover, deforestation, impact on biodiversity, and also loss of resources for the communities whose livelihood is dependent on forest produce, due to mining.

Regulatory Framework for Environmental Management in Mining :

In India, regulation of coal mining is one of the most comprehensive and pervasive statutory framework for ensuring occupational health and safety (OHS). Coal mines are regulated by several legislations in India under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment (MOL&E). Some of them are: The Mines Act,1952; The Mines Rules,1955; The Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act,1957; The Mines Rescue Rules,1985; The Electricity Act,2003; Indian Explosives Act,1984 and The Workmen Compensation Act,2009. In India, each project related to mining activities mandates to draft an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) to be prepared for submission to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and obtain Environmental Clearance (EC) from the Department of Environment (DOE). Such procedure is a statutory mandate which helps in analysing and assessing potential environmental impacts that particular mining would cause so as to prevent it or make necessary changes at the early stage of planning. 

In the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957, coal is listed in the First Schedule of this Act, which is a major mineral. This implies that the ownership of the coal resources is vested on the State however prospecting and mining are controlled by the Central Government. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 1994 made EIA mandatory for mining projects of major minerals with leases more than 5 hec., which provides for two stages of clearances i.e., site clearance and environmental clearance. The regulatory organisation of coal mining in India is managed by both the State Government and the Central Government along with their respective Pollution Board Control, both at the State level and Central Level. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is the main regulatory agency that advises the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on matters related to prevention and control of water and air pollution from any industrial activities, and therefore in order to curtail the impacts of mining processes on the environment, the CPCB has laid down the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Coastal Zone Regulation, 2011. On the State level, the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) ensures that mining activities are in compliance with the said Acts.

 Regulatory framework which guides and monitors the coal mining sector in terms of environmental management of mining activity is guided by various legislations in India. They are – The Wild Life Protection Act, 1972; The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981; The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 and The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016. These legislations regulate the mining activities at different stages of their operation, which amongst others includes necessary information related to water sources, an assessment of impact on the forest, air, water, forest clearances and contributing funds for compensatory afforestation. The sole purpose of these legislations is to prevent further damage to the environment resulting from mining activities and hence take appropriate measures for conservation and restoration of the ecosystem.

Conclusion :

Coal is said to be the most abundant fossil fuel found in India, and it is not illegal to exploit such natural resources. However, coal mining is hazardous to safety and human health and a threat to a wholesome environment and eco-system. The existing legislations which governs the coal mining sector of the country including the rules, policies and legislations supervising the environmental management of such mining cannot be said to be sustainable in the long run. The Hoda Committee, in their review the National Mineral Policy 1993, recommended that apart from introducing best practices in implementation of environment management, there was also a need to take into account the global trends in sustainable development, and thus recommended the development of an Sustainable Development Framework (SDF) for the mining sector in India. However, the term ‘sustainable’ in mining seems like an oxymoron until and unless the laws are made stringent, enforcement of such laws becomes a priority for every stakeholders and regulation and impact of mining at every stage of its operation is being monitored regularly.

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