Coal as a natural resource may havebeen the pillar upon which many countries generated wealthbut that was fifty years and not without consequences.Importantly, the use of coal for power was based on the level of knowledge at the time. As has been established beyond doubt, coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. And it is not cheap as is usually described. The aftermath costs are often irreparable.
The entire process from mining to coal cleaning, transportation to electricity generation and waste disposal, coal releases numerous toxic pollutants into the air, water and land. In a 2001 publication titled “cradle to the grave: the environmental impacts from coal” the author posited that coal causes cancer, damages the nervous and immune systems, and impedes reproduction and development. The publication was based on evidence from coal mining sites and coal power plants in the United States. In essence, even with all the technical knowhow and efficient medical facilities coal processing portends ahealth threat.In fact, new conventional coal plants are described as “imprudent financial investments.”
Few years after Nigeria’s renewed push for coal power development(a decision that takes Nigeria back to 1906 when coal was first discovered in the country), it seems we are already witnessing the destructive and life threating impacts of coal mining inOkobo, Kogi state and Maiganga, Gombe state.
According to Global Rights (a Nigerian NGO that advocates for sustainable justice), coal mining in these locations is by surface mining otherwise called opencast mining. This method of mining requires large expanse on land with the overlaying soil covering removed using explosives and heavy duty machinery. These sites form craters that scar the landscape irreparably, destroying entire ecosystem of plants and animals. Weathering and leaching of the host rock result in heavy metals dissolving into nearby water bodies making them highly toxic and acidic.
It is more worrying considering that these mines are only a few years old. For example, the Okobo site is 6 years old while in Maiganga, mining activities started in 2007.If current poor mining practices continue, these areas will be ruined beyond any use.
Global Rights in the report titled “power at all cost: the opportunity cost” which was unveiled to the public on January 11, 2018 stated that in Maiganga, dust, smoke and fire are a normal. The inhalation of the hazardous coal dust and smoke from spontaneous combustion of coal in the mining site disrupts ambient air quality, causing respiratory diseases. This is exacerbated by the proximity of the community to the mine site.
The community people say they have witnessed increased number of miscarriages in both humans and domestic animals since mining operations began. Thus to avoid being victims, pregnant women leave the community for some distant community until they put to bed. Child development defects have also be recorded. In particular is a 4 years old girl, Bibi Saidu who suffers partial paralysis. The doctors diagnosed that her health condition is as a direct effect of consuming nitrate polluted water which comes from the on-going mining activities in Maiganga. Now, she can only move and play with one side of her body.
Other predominant health complaints are gastrointestinal disease like unexplainable stomach ache, typhoid and appendicitis; ocular irritation and; blood urine especially during dry season.
Beyond the health challenges, the community has also had to endure violent suppression. In March 2014, following their frustration, the community staged a peaceful protest to the company. In response, the company used mobile police men to disperse the people with teargas. Several members of the community were later arrested, detained for a whole week without charges and were released with strict warning never to repeat same.
Unfortunately, the people of Maiganga consented to the establishment of the mine but did so from an uninformed position. While the ECOWAS mining directive to which Nigeria is a signatory clearly proscribes ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’, it was not the case for the people of Maiganga. In fact, they were not involved in the environmental impact assessment process. Till this day, a community development agreement which is a requisite has not been signed. Instead they were verbally promised schools, water boreholes, hospitals and jobs. So, they danced at the opportunity. But 10 years on, it is pain, tears and sorrow.
These many troubles for the community has led to mistrust of the mining company and a feeling of abandonment by the government at both the state and federal levels.
It leaves the querying mind with questions. Why will the company (with international repute) act with such irresponsibility? But even if the company has decided to be irresponsible, don’t our officials have a duty? Is it that there are no standards? It is that they don’t understand their mandated function of ensuring that mining operations are conducted in a manner that protects the environment and host communities?
One thing is clear though, the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development saddled with this responsibility have to wake up. Enough of the slumber; lifestyle, livelihoods and living conditions are being disrupted on a daily basis from coal mining.
It is recommended that:
• Government should as a matter of priority reevaluate its position on coal power generation. Beyond sending us hundred years behind, there are existential threats to human health as well as environmental cost.
• Government should urgently investigate the human rights violation in coal mining communities and sanction offenders to forestall reoccurrence.
• Operational mining companies should be made to deposit a determined clean-up amount which will be used to remediate the mining site as nature will have it.
Finally, we have to ask the hard question. Do we really need coal power to develop? If there is any iota of doubt, then it is important we leave coal in the ground.
Our future is at stake. We have the sun, water and natural gas. We cannot gamble with coal.
Unaegbu, an Environmental Protection and Sustainable Energy Expert, works with CLIMATTERS and writes from Abuja. He Tweets @emmalysis