The illegal rat hole mining of coal in Meghalaya and Assam has emerged as the main culprit of the October 7 disaster at the Kopili Hydro Electric Plant at Umrangso since the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO) authorities had detected high percentage of acid in the water of the project’s reservoir long time back in 2006.
Briefing newsmen here today, NEEPCO chairman-cum-managing director VK Singh said that it was a disaster waiting to happen. He said that when in 2006, acidic water was first detected by expert agencies engaged by the NEEPCO, they intimated the Central and State governments about the matter.
In June 2006, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) discovered that acidic water from the neighbouring coal mines flowed into the reservoir and the acid in water was found to be beyond the permissible level. Thereafter, the NEEPCO filed a detailed report with the Government of India flagging the issue.
The NEEPCO had also written to the Chief Secretaries of both Assam and Meghalaya governments, besides the Joint Secretary (Hydro) in the Union Power Ministry, and the Central Pollution Control Board, calling for urgent steps to stop the illegal coal mining operations.
The NEEPCO had taken at least 26 steps to resolve the issue and kept the Central Electricity Authority and Central Water Commission in the loop. The acid corrodes the steel, Singh said.
Though the illegal rat hole mining was banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), it is believed to be still operating clandestinely. “If the mining operation has been stopped, why the acidic water is still flowing from the mines,” asked Singh.
“The problem has not originated from NEEPCO,” Singh said terming the incident as an accident.
The CMD suggested that the illegal coal mines have to be completely sealed by the government if the menace has to be stopped. He then went on to list the measures taken by the NEEPCO to protect the equipment and machinery. “We had spent about Rs 60-70 crore on protective measures,” he said.
Visibly under pressure, the CMD said that the latest status is that 90 workers are working 24×7 clearing the debris aided by equipment like excavators, which are permitted within the limited space in the five-storey building. Each floor is full of equipment and machinery, and adequate care has to be taken to avoid any further mishaps, he said, adding that they had equipment worth Rs 350 crore in the building.
Singh said the NEEPCO has hired experts from other agencies and PSUs to assist in their salvage operation. “My appeal is that let the experts carry out their job professionally without any hindrance,” the CMD pleaded.
Singh said the total saving for Assam from the hydroelectric project was Rs 160 crore. The State government used to buy power from NEEPCO at Rs 1.34 per unit. Asked about the loss sustained by NEEPCO, the CMD said that though an assessment is yet to be made, a rough calculation suggests that it should be around Rs 500 crore.
The first priority now is to rescue the four workers who went missing after the incident, the CMD said. “Thereafter an assessment will be made to determine the damage caused to equipment and machinery after the building has been cleared of the debris,” he said.
The NEEPCO has been directed by the Power Ministry to file hourly updates to the government about the rescue work, an official said.