A dark side
by Centre for Strategic Studies, Trincomalee, February 2023
The Power Plant
The Lakvijaya Power Plant, also known as the Norochcholai Power plant, is situated in Norochcholai, Puttalam in the Northwestern province of Sri Lanka, at the southern end of Kalpitiya peninsula. It is the largest thermal power plant in Sri Lanka.
The plant was proposed by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) in 1995 but the construction didn’t start till 2007. The delay in construction was due to protests launched by the communities and residents living near and around the project site.
The construction was undertaken by the China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC). The construction was done in three phases, with the last phase being completed in 2014. The first phase of 300 MW was commissioned in 2011, and the second and third phase in 2014. The total power generation capacity of this plant is 900 Megawatt with an estimated cost of the project being USD 1.35 billion.
Construction of a 115 KM 220 KV transmission line was included in the first phase that connected the power plant to the national grid through Veyangoda substation. In addition, a coal unloading jetty that extended 4.2km into the ocean was also constructed. Nearby villages include Narakkalli and Penaiyadi on the Kalpitiya peninsula.
The Lakvijaya power plant is Sri Lanka’s first coal-fired thermal power plant, implemented as a venture of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) with the aid of the EXIM Bank of the Republic of China. The plant uses bituminous coal as a primary fuel and auto diesel as a secondary. On behalf of CEB, the Lanka Coal Company (LCC) procure the coal following procurement procedures laid by the Lankan Ministry of Finance. The coal is imported from various sources, such as South Africa, Australia, Russia and Indonesia.
The coal is imported to Sri Lanka via the sea route. The ships carry about 65 tons of coal. The ships are anchored at a distance of 5 km from the shore. Coal is then brought to the unloading jetty through barges, which is then transferred to the storage facility through conveyer belts. The storage facility can store approximately 1.2 million tons of coal. Such huge space for storage is crucial for electricity generation during the southwest monsoon season (May to September), when coal transportation and unloading becomes difficult.
In the plant, the coal must have a moisture content of around 10 percent for better efficiency. Therefore, it is pulverized to improve the combustion efficiency at the pulverizing mills installed at the site. This coal is used as fuel to produce steam, reaching temperatures above 1200 degrees Celsius. This steam is used to rotate the blades of the steam turbine at the speed of 3000 rpm. The 20 kV generator connected to the turbine rotor produces 300 MW from each unit, collectively generating 900 MW from the three units.
China’s involvement in the project
Over the decade starting 2005-2015, China has emerged as the leading source of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Sri Lanka–$14 billion. Most of the loans and private investment has been done in the fields of energy, infrastructure and services.
China’s FDI has clearly overshadowed that of other countries in the island nation. In 2005, China’s FDI into Sri Lanka was $16.4 million, or just under 1% of the total Sri Lankan FDI. By 2015 Chinese private investments reached $338 million, constituting 35% of Sri Lanka’s total FDI. In contrast, the Netherlands’ share of FDI was 9%, India’s, like Malaysia’s, was 7%, and Singapore’s only 3 per cent.2 These large investments have allowed China to assert its dominance over the local economy.
On August 30, 2005, China Exim bank signed a $300 million preferential buyer’s credit (PBC) with the Ministry of Finance of the Government of Sri Lanka for the Phase I of the Puttalam/Norochcholai Coal Power Project. Then, on September 8, 2006, China Eximbank signed a $155 million buyer’s credit loan (BCL) with the Ministry of Finance of the Government of Sri Lanka for the Phase I of the Puttalam/Norochcholai Coal Power Project. The PBC carries a 20-year maturity, 5 year grace period, and an interest rate of 2%. The BCL carries a 15-year maturity, a 5 year grace period, and a 6% interest rate. The Ministry of Finance of the Government of Sri Lanka then used the proceeds from the BCL and PBC to on-lend to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), which is a state-owned electricity company that controls all major functions of electricity generation, transmission, distribution and retailing in Sri Lanka.
This project involved the installation of a 300MW coal power plant, a jetty for coal handling, and transmission lines from Norochcholai to Veyangoda and substation at Veyangoda. China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) was the contractor responsible for project implementation. The first stage of this Coal Power station, inaugurated by the President, cost $450 Million, while the second stage is estimated to cost $891 Million. A project inauguration ceremony took place on May 11, 2006. Phase I construction began on July 23, 2007. The first 300-megawatt phase was completed and ceremonially commissioned by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on March 22, 2011.3
Incidents at the power plant
Since its inception, the power plant has faced frequent problems and breakdowns. As a result, CEB has incurred significant financial losses. It was alleged by the Power and Renewable Energy Deputy Minister, Ajith P. Perera that the power plant was built with substandard and outdated material and is well below international standards.
- During the construction of the plant, a fire broke out at the site in October 2010. The reason for the fire was cited as clogging up a chimney that emits waste from the combustion of coal. No casualties were reported. Minister Champika Ranawaka stated that the government would not bear the costs of damages and insisted that the Chinese company conducting the construction will bear the full cost of the damages.
- On July 22, 2012, the power station ceased operations due to a leak in one of the thousands of tubes carrying water between the boilers. The country was put into controlled regional power outages to cope with the missing generation.
- On August 8, 2012, a tripping of the power line from Lakvijaya caused the power station to cease operations.
- On January 29, 2013, the power station exceeded its designed levels of 300MW, causing a complete shutdown. The plant was reactivated a day later.
- On December 13, 2013, a steam leak was detected.
- On January 12 2014, a local newspaper reported the power plant was shut down due to a leak from the repaired condenser had been detected, and the plant shut down for the 26th time. It also reported that in the previous 24 days, it had been shut down on four occasions.
- In December 2015, it was reported that all three coal plants in the facility were offline due to multiple plant failures.
- In March 2016, the country was without electricity for more than eight hours following a massive system breakdown stemming at a power plant.
- In August 2020, a ‘technical fault’ at the plant caused a nationwide blackout and power rationing. Despite a previous expert committee having recommended it as far back as February 2017, the plant still didn’t have an auxiliary (external) power supply mechanism to keep the units alive in the event of a grid failure.
- In December 2021, some engineers claimed power shedding and random power cuts were expected as coal was in short supply. In addition, two generators may have developed faults.
- On June 17, 2022, a generator at the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant was shut down for essential maintenance.
- On December 23, 2022, one of the three coal power plants was shut down in order to manage the existing coal stocks and for routine maintenance.
It has come to light that no proper investigation has been conducted by CEB or Lakvijaya to understand why these units are failing continually and to decide on suitable interventions.
Several failures of this power plant have caused thousands of hours of generation loss while incurring nearly 6.5 Billion Rupees reduction of income to the national economy due to the unavailability of the plant as per the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Annual Report 2015.
Moreover, it has been reported that the maintenance work at the plant is done by Chinese engineers only and the manuals available for any repair work is written in the Chinese language. This means that the local engineers are unable to rehabilitate the plant without any Chinese expertise. The CEB has to pay more than $70 million by 2022 towards maintaining the 35 Chinese engineers at Norochcholai.
According to a CEB official, “We are keeping the liaison with China for two reasons. Firstly, our [CEB] skill retention is weak. Once specialized, few remain at the post for long; many retire and some seek transfers. Another factor is that the Government pay scales don’t reflect their specialization. In the case of some of the key components, the manufacturer does not provide details about them as they have their technology or design secrets. Also there are ‘black box’ parts which are not indicated in the technical drawing; no details are given, they only come with instructions to be replaced if they malfunction. We find such design secrets in European, Japanese, and Chinese designs too. Therefore, if we severe ties with the Chinese OEM, there is no way to source these specialized parts. A power plant is an intricate set of machines, so we need to keep a close link to source parts.”
Last year, the Government cancelled plans to build a fourth coal power generation unit at the Norochcholai facility, which was estimated to introduce another 300 MW of generation capacity to the national grid upon completion. The project was to be funded through a Chinese loan and built by a Chinese manufacturer. The addition to the Lakvijaya plant at Norochcholai was scrapped in line with the Government’s policy of reaching 70% of power needs through renewable sources.
Environmental impact The emissions from the Lak Vijaya power plant have produced significant negative impacts on the environment as well as resident society. A June 2018 report by the ‘Coalition against Coal’ found the Lak Vijaya plant lacks an environmental management license, a waste management license, approval for a recent expansion of a coal yard, or authorization for drilling of water bores. It also found that sensors for environmental monitoring had not been properly calibrated, that there had been repeated breakdowns of the flue gas desulphurization units, and the plant had no mercury control system.
In July 2018, the flue-gas desulphurizer (FGD) on unit 2 was destroyed when a welding fault set its insulation material on fire. This instrument removes Sulphur dioxide from the flue gas. In October 2018, the Wayamba Provincial Council Environmental authority issued the license to the Lak Vijaya power plant despite the FGD not functioning.
The report observed that “None of the other regulatory bodies, including the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), Coast Conservation Department (CCD) or local Government has taken regulatory action on Lakvijaya plant despite ample evidence of violations”.
The non-compliance of some of the environmental regulations have aggravated negative issues pertaining to the environment, such as GHG emissions, resource depletion, thermal emissions, particulate emissions, water pollution, noise etc.
1. GHG emissions
GHG emissions occur due to combustion of coal and diesel. The total externality cost (social and environmental damage) due to the emission of greenhouse gases by (GHGs) by Lak Vijaya Coal Power Plant (LVPP) in Norochcholai has reached Rs.36.6 billion (US$ 244 million) per annum, while burdening the local economy with a cost between Rs.15.7 billion to Rs.16.7 billion per annum, according to a study carried out by a panel of experts at Sri Lanka Energy Managers Association (SLEMA)
2. Other Gaseous Emissions
Common gaseous emissions other than concerned GHGs from a coal plant are Sulphur Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide and Nitrous Oxides. They have been correlated with many health problems directly and indirectly. As the majority of coal power plants are equipped with water-based flue gas arresting systems or scrubbers (Flue Gas Desulphurization System – FGDS), the major portion of these gases mixed with water to form acidic effluents.
3. Resource Depletion
1. Depletion of coal – The main source of energy at Lakvijaya power plant is coal which is also the most depleted resource. Coal depletion is a global externality which is felt by all countries relying on fossil fuels for energy needs.
2. Depletion of ground water – Ground water is drawn up for the coal yard and as yard operations at this facility in huge amounts. However, it is not replenished again as it usually gets evaporated.
3. Depletion of marine resources – For various operations such as boiler feed water, condenser cooling water etc, and the power plant uses sea water. This may lead to the destruction of marine life, such as benthic organisms, microorganisms, eggs and larvae of marine animals due to the high rate of water withdrawal.
4. Depletion of local biodiversity – Local villagers have stated that marine life especially sea turtles are not found near the area surrounding the power plant. It is to be noted that out of a total of seven living species of sea turtles, five are reported to nest along the beaches of Puttalam-Kalpitiya coastal belt.
4. Thermal Emissions
As stated above, the power plant uses sea water for cooling operations. A stream of water flows through 16,000 condenser tubes which ultimately heats up 5-7 degrees. This heated water is then released into the sea without any treatment or cooling off. This difference in temperatures could lead to severe damage to local ocean biodiversity. A senior official of the Puttalam Wildlife Zonal Office stated that the fish as well as the coral reef in the area, are in danger of extinction due to the water at a temperature higher than 7°C from the ocean being released from the Norochcholai Power Plant. He added that if this situation is not addressed, there is a possibility that dolphins, which are abundant in the Kalpitiya region, will be affected in the future.
5. Heavy Metal Pollutants in Emissions
Coal contains many metallic substances like Mercury (Hg), Lead (Pb), Arsenic (As) and Chromium (Cr) in micro amounts. These metallic contaminants can get mixed with ash or gases during the combustion process.
6. Particulate Emissions
Particulate emissions, especially PM10 and PM2.5, are very common in coal power plants. The emissions are emitted in various stages, such as raw material storage, stack emission and post-combustion ash storage. As the plant is located in the Kalpitiya peninsula, the winds carry these emissions to nearby areas creating substantial issues for the residents.
7. Water Pollution
In addition to water pollution caused by gaseous, thermal and heavy metal emissions, it is also caused by coal particle emission during the coal unloading and transferring process. It is estimated that 17,000 tonnes of coal are lost into the ocean due to spillage during unloading from ship to barge.
Environmental issues in the region
The main issues with the plant are related to fly ash and bottom ash produced during the power generation process. Fly ash and bottom ash are by-products of the coal combustion process, where fly ash is fine particles that escape combustion chambers with exhaust gases, while bottom ash is a noncombustible residue which collects at the bottom of the broiler.
Fly ash open dumping is also of significant concern as the yard is open to wind erosion and leaching. As it is smaller than 10 microns, it is easily lifted by the winds and carried away, disrupting agriculture, polluting water supplies and causing various diseases.
Fly ash is also high in heavy metal concentrations such as mercury, arsenic and lead. These have an impact on human health. Fly ash emissions from the stacks also travel large distances before deposition and create heavy metal and particulate matter risk to multiple provinces including North Western, Northern and North Central.
Approximately 1000 tons of fly ash is generated per day at Lakvijaya,” According to a report by Coalition against Coal. “Although the CEB went through a Cabinet-approved tender process for 100 percent sales of fly ash in February 2018, the fly ash sales percentage today is still approximately 60 percent. This means dumping of over 400 tons of ash into the ash yard per day using open tippers and during the monsoon creates significant community pollution.”
The correct method to operate a fly ash yard is with “high concentration slurry disposal”. The current level of open dumping, with little water mixed, raises significant fly ash pollution, risking community health, the ecology and CEB employees.
a. Skin diseases
It has been reported that several children in the areas surrounding the Norochcholai power plant have contracted skin diseases. Patches, that look like rashes have appeared on skin of several children. Not even newborns are safe from this, who are born with these patches. Villagers tell about incidents of expectant mothers who have been admitted to hospital multiple 22 times due to complications from fly ash pollution. The residents have complained of unbearable skin irritation which becomes worse on hot days.
b. Respiratory issues
The children and the elderly in the region are more vulnerable to skin and respiratory diseases like asthma. Inhaling coal dust can cause bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, emphysema, and heart disease, among other things.
c. Impact on livelihood
Being a fisheries and agricultural community, the impact on the livelihood of the local residents is catastrophic. Fishermen complain that the daily catch has dropped. There is no adequate fish for the villagers due to the heated water released to the sea.
Farmers in Paniadiya are finding it extremely difficult to grow crops like chillies, lady fingers, melon, pumpkin and other crops that grow above the surface of the earth. Farms are unable to yield a good harvest due to the dust spread by the wind. The crops are all covered with ash; the soil eroded due to the high concentration of metallic particulates. The trees, fruits and vegetables are all covered with a thick layer of ash.
d. Water pollution
Concerned residents have also resorted to drinking only bottled water to avoid drinking ground water that they suspect might be contaminated by coal dust.
Response of the authorities
According to the Secretary of the Ministry of Power and Energy, the Lakvijaya workers have started pouring a soluble cement solution over the fly ash piles. In addition, a chemical is added to the surface to harden the surface on top of the ash pile. Certain coal piles are also covered with a trampoline to prevent the ash from flying with the wind.
He further added that there are plans to make cement blocks with the ash as well as a wind barrier. The height of the wind-barrier would be about 75 feet which would help will prevent the wind from carrying particles to adjacent villages.
Bottom ash contains heavy metals, arsenic, nickel, copper and mercury, which are harmful to human health. Chronic exposure to low levels of inorganic or elemental Hg can cause behavioral and neurocognitive disturbances, kidney dysfunction and tremors. Mercury can also cause impaired hearing and vision, as well as impairment to the central nervous system.
Mercury can enter into the surrounding aquatic ecosystem and bio-accumulate by bacteria into methylmercury in the food chain. If mercury mixes with an area’s water table, the water is no longer safe for drinking. Mercury can also be fatal to humans if it accumulates through the digestive tract.
An anonymous environmentalist has reported that around 580 kg of mercury is produced every year at the facility as a result of coal power generation. This makes the soil and water in the area highly susceptible of mercury poisoning. The vegetables and other crops grown in the area may not be safe for consumption.
To prevent the seeping of these metals to the soil, they should be deposited on a layer of sodium bentonite and covered by a trampoline from the top.
Mercury poisoning is usually accompanied by the cardinal signs of nail discoloration and loss of hair. The hair and nails of the people in the area should be tested for the presence of mercury.
Impact on Sri Maha Bodhi Tree Jaya
Sri Maha Bodhi tree is a sacred and historical Bo tree (Fig tree) that is located in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. It is believed that this tree is grown from a branch of the sacred Bodhi tree in Gaya, India, under which Siddhartha Gautama (Lord Buddha) attained enlightenment. It holds significant importance for Buddhists who visit and pay homage to the scared tree, which has a direct link to Lord Buddha himself.
Being more than 2,300 years old, this tree is the oldest human-planted tree. But now, it is under threat of being destroyed due to toxic emissions from the Norochcholai power plant. According to ecologists, there is a chance that clouds carrying dangerous acid deposits will move in the direction of Anuradhapura, where the revered Bo tree (Fig tree) is located.
Burning coal releases Sulfur, Sulfur dioxide and Nitrogen oxides along with heavy metal emissions. These gases could react with the gases naturally present in the environment and form extremely toxic acids such as Sulfuric acid and Nitric acid. When combined with water vapor, these harmful acids form acid rain which can gradually cause the degradation of vegetation, soil and infrastructure.
Closer to the power plant, trees have already started showing symptoms of damage. The leaves of taller trees have started turning yellowish due to the emission of these gases. It won’t be too long before the effect of toxic emissions start appearing on the sacred tree.