The environmental impact assessment of S Alam Group’s coal-fired power station in Chattogram, Bangladesh omitted the potential effects of mercury and some air pollutants and made misleading claims about the basic air quality in the area, according to the Helsinki-based Center for Energy and Environmental Research Air.
A Chinese-backed coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh that was cracked down fatally during protests has now been accused of failing to ensure proper environmental inspections.
The environmental impact assessment of the S. Alam Group’s coal-fired power station in Chattogram omitted the potential effects of mercury and some air pollutants and made misleading claims about basic air quality in the area, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The Helsinki-based group said in a press release that it obtained the information from a non-publicly available document from an unnamed government source.
The allegations are the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the power plant, which show the increasing opposition to new coal-fired power plants even in developing countries with power deficits. Several people were killed in environmental demonstrations at the start of construction in 2016, and police killed at least five during workers protests against wages in April.
“Bangladesh lacks meaningful environmental regulations, as is the case in many other countries that host China-backed energy projects,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, CREA senior analyst and author of the report. “Still, the Chinese government and state financiers have failed to put in place environmental and social security measures that would prevent project developers from exploiting a weak or non-existent regulator.”
The government of Bangladesh approved the project according to the country’s standards, said Mohammad Hossain, director general of Power Cell, the national regulator for the energy industry. “If there are new complaints about air quality standards, we will certainly take a look,” replied Hossain to the allegations. “We haven’t received any complaints through the official channel.”
Environment Minister Ziaul Hasan failed to answer several phone calls to comment. Mohammed Saiful Alam, Chairman and Managing Director of the S. Alam Group, which has a 70% interest in the plant, declined to comment immediately when he was contacted by phone.
Shangdong Electric Power Construction Corp., which owns a 20% stake, did not respond to an email request for comment. The Bank of China and China Development Bank, part of a consortium of Chinese banks that provided a $ 1.8 billion loan for the project, also failed to respond to questions via email.
Protesters shot dead
The project includes two 660 megawatt coal-fired steam generators in Banshkhali, south of the country’s largest port, Chattogram (formerly Chittagong). During protests in 2016, four demonstrators were shot dead in clashes with the police before construction began.
In April, workers began negotiating with management to demand back pay, raise and half-day Fridays. The protest quickly escalated to violence, with police shooting and killing at least five people. A Bangladeshi court in May sentenced S. Alam to initial compensation of 500,000 taka (US $ 5,896) to the families of each of the dead workers.
The environmental impact assessment, which covers the plant’s first unit, says the air quality at the site was in line with national standards so it can avoid stricter environmental regulations, CREA said. But samples taken for evaluation showed pollutants exceeded these standards in every way, the group said.
According to CREA, the plant will emit five times as much sulfur dioxide and ten times as much nitrous oxide as would be allowed in China.
CREA, together with the Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association and the Bangladesh Working Group on External Debt Bangladesh, recommends stepping up the oversight and enforcement of its environmental laws and including the public health impact in the assessments. They also call on Chinese companies to align foreign investments with Xi Jinping’s climate goals and not to exploit loopholes through weak regulation.
China’s funding for energy projects abroad has declined and some of its decisions have met with opposition. Last year, more than 20 non-governmental organizations urged Chinese banks to withdraw financial support for a coal-fired power plant under construction in Turkey. China also funded $ 260 million for a coal-fired power plant in Pakistan.
The investments contrast with a growing reluctance from other countries and organizations in Asia to continue to support coal-fired power, the largest polluter and producer of greenhouse gases in the energy sector. South Korea recently stopped all government-backed funding for coal projects abroad, prompting the United Nations to urge other countries to do the same. The Asian Development Bank announced last month that it would stop funding coal projects.
China has tried to make its investments more environmentally sustainable. In December, a coalition of the Belt and Road Initiative, under the supervision of China’s Ministry of Environment, developed a color-coded classification to assess investment risks abroad. According to Boston University’s Global Energy Finance Database, China’s funding for foreign energy projects, including power plants, fell in 2020, at $ 4.6 billion, its lowest level since 2008.
The heads of the Chinese state banks called for a gradual withdrawal of coal financing and stated at a forum last month that a quick withdrawal would result in losses for both banks and borrowers. From July 1, China’s central bank will begin to rate the banks’ green finance business.