Chinese-built coal power plant and associated technical and environmental issues

The breakdowns are so frequent that the Norochcholai plant has acquired the name “always breakdown.” The first ever coal-fired power plant belonging to Sri Lanka, built by the Chinese and located in Norochcholai, has almost become synonymous with breakdowns from its very inception in the year 2011.

The breakdowns are numerous and a large segment of the power consumers in the country experience power outages quite frequently. The coal-fired power generators are often shut down for repairs more than they are functional.

Then-Minister of Power and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka correctly pointed out that Sri Lanka should have chosen a more advanced system than Chinese technology, which is often derisively referred to as “always breaking down.”

The Minister in the year 2012 conceded that there had been designing and technology issues at the Norochcholai Chinese-built coal power project that ostensibly adds to Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) losses.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Minister Ranawaka said that the delay in starting the project initially deprived Sri Lanka of getting advanced Japanese technology for the project, eventually deciding to go along with Chinese technology.

We did not get it at the right time, nor did we get the best place, nor did we get the best technology. ” -he said somewhere in 2012.

“We have a design problem, and the unit is too big,” Ranawaka explained. Whenever there is a breakdown, the cooling time is as high as 15 to 16 days. “The CEB, the Chinese company, and the consultants who approved it should all be held accountable,” he said.

“We expected 1,500 Gwh, but they gave us only 1,000, forcing us to get the rest from Diesel,” he added. The idea of setting up a coal power plant was first discussed and planned during the period of President J.R. Jayewardene in 1985.

At the time, the authorities considered three locations: Mawella in Matara, Oluwil in Ampara, and Puttlam. However, due to pressure exerted by various quarters and environmental issues, President Jayewardene was reluctant to give the green light for the project to go ahead.

Once again in 1995, the Ceylon Electricity Board proposed the setting up of a coal power plant in 1995 during the period of President Chandrika Kumaratunga but began the construction of the facility in 2007 after President Mahinda Rajapaksa took over as President in 2005.

The power plant was named the Lakvijaya Coal Power Plant but is more commonly referred to as the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant. The exact locations are Narakkali and Penaiyadi near Norochcholai within the Puttalam district on the west coast of the Kalpitiya peninsula.

It was constructed in 3 phases and completed by September 2014, with a total power generation capacity of 900 MW. According to the available figures, the first phase of the coal power plant was commissioned in March 2011 in keeping with the policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to fulfil his vision of the Mahinda Chinthana by providing energy to all by 2012.

The grand ceremony of adding 300 MW of coal-generated power to the national grid took place on the 22nd of March in the year 2012.

The first stage of this coal power station, inaugurated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, incurred a cost of $ 455 million. The Ministry of Power and Energy stated that the funding for this project was provided by the Chinese government at a long-term low-interest rate to the Sri Lankan government. The construction work was carried out by the China Machinery Engineering Company, CMEC China.

The company is part of the China National Machinery Industry Corporation group of companies. CMEC’s specialisation is listed as the construction of power projects in generation, transmission, and distribution.

As the local component of the investment, the Sri Lankan government has invested Rs. 5300 million for the first stage. Under the first stage of the project, the burning of fuel was carried out at the site on 2010.11.17.

Eighty families that lost their property and were displaced during the 1st stage of construction have been provided with houses constructed on 20 perches, complete with drinking water, electricity, and all other basic facilities, and also roads and preschools were constructed while the Puttalam Kalpitiya main road was widened to 40 feet. Furthermore, 200 acres were provided to these families for cultivation. This coal power plant provided a solution to the country’s power issues, but the project at the same time caused massive environmental damage. Nevertheless, many steps were taken to mitigate the effects.

The Catholic community in the area was up in arms over the difficulties they were to face owing to the project. They brought up several matters, including environmental issues and problems that may arise from time to time concerning their livelihood—fishing.

The Chilaw Catholic Bishop made several representations to the government and held protest demonstrations against the construction of the power plant. The government showed some flexibility by going into the matter in detail and discussing the issue with the Catholic Bishop of the Chilaw Diocese. At the same time, the government was adamant about going ahead with the project and initiated the first ever coal-powered electricity generation project to cushion the shortfall in supply that may occur in the future.

The Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), together with three affected community members (a fisherman and two farmers) from Norochcholai, filed a Fundamental Rights case that invoked the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court on the 22nd of August 2016, against the only coal power plant in Sri Lanka. This case challenged the functioning of the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant as it causes serious health, economic, and environmental impacts, violating several provisions of the Constitution, including Article 12 (right to equal protection of law), Article 14(1)(g) (right to occupation), and Article 14 (1)(h) (right to choose one’s residence and freedom of movement). Moreover, EFL’s Petition pleads that the NCPP’s operations are contrary to Sri Lanka’s international obligations toward emission reduction and environmental protection as stipulated in the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and others.

The NCPP poses irreversible grave impacts on the health, safety, and livelihoods of surrounding communities and causes irreparable damage to the environment, both on land and sea. Emissions cause multiple adverse impacts as the coal itself is toxic and the burning of the coal releases greenhouse gases and toxins. Coal combustion produces residue such as fly ash (generated from coal combustion), bottom ash (deposited in the system) and boiler slag. These materials are hazardous to both human health and environmental sustenance as they contain heavy metals such as mercury and radioactive nucleoids.

The impacts of the coal power plant not only affect those living in its immediate vicinity but pose the threat of harm to future generations as well.

The EFL case was taken up on 05.07.2019 at the Court of Appeal. Petitioners were ready to support the case for interim relief. The case was heard again on October 14, 2019, and the justices ordered the parties to seek a settlement and ensure that there were several meetings between the parties to try to resolve the issues. The settlement terms for this case were prepared and filed by the Attorney General’s Department, for which EFL filed the observations on behalf of petitioners and attended a meeting organised by the Attorney General’s Department for the purposes of considering a settlement. However, except for the Ministry of Christian and Religious Affairs, none of the other respondents were in attendance. As a result, it was decided that the matter be set for argument, which was prayed for on December 3, 2019. The case was argued on 02.07.2020 and the case is reserved for judgement on 25.09.2020. The case was argued on 02.07.2020 and the judgement was delivered by the Court of Appeal on 25.09.2020. The Court of Appeal upheld the preliminary objection of the respondents and dismissed the application.

The Norochcholai Coal Fired Power Plan addressed power generation issues to a greater extent, but environmental and other issues remained, posing serious challenges to the community’s livelihood.

On top of all these, the breakdowns caused a major hiccup in the power distribution and current maintenance issues, and at present the breakdowns result in longer power cuts imposed by the Ceylon Electricity Board.

In the meantime, the government was considering the setting up of yet another 300MW coal power plant in Norochcholai to overcome the impending power crisis in the country. This decision was taken after they assumed office in 2020.

One-time Power and Energy Minister under the Rajapaksa regime, Patali Champika Ranawaka, called it a national crime for the issues involved in it. Mr. Ranawaka told a press briefing that the project is a crime because of the environmental impact and other technical issues.

“The Cabinet had decided to award the contract for constructing this new power plant to the same company that set up the Lakvijaya Plant in Norochcholai.

The earlier power plant in Norochcholai had fallen short of producing the contracted amount of power by 200MW. One wonders as to how the contracted company could construct a power plant of 300MW when it had failed to deliver the promised capacity of the earlier power plant, “said Mr Ranawaka, raising a very valid point to ponder.

He pointed out that the existing lines do not have ample capacity to carry further power. He also said that the government has decided to award the contract to the same company that constructed the Lakvijaya power plant without calling for fresh bids. He also said that, in the absence of a proper environmental impact study, it would be dangerous to embark on such a project that tends to emit green gases into the environment, causing health hazards.