Mumbai: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has questioned the Centre and Maharashtra government on how brick kilns in the densely-populated Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) are being allowed to function because they contribute to the worsening of air quality and also cause a potential health hazard for the public.
A brick kiln is a traditional method of baking bricks in an insulated chamber or clamp, which is similar to a large oven, by stacking unbaked bricks with fuel under or among them and then setting the fuel on fire.
Traditional brick kilns use clay, while the comparatively modern ones use fly ash and other industrial waste for brick manufacturing.
A study by the air pollution research group, Urban Emissions, has identified that brick kilns account for 2.3% of all particulate matter (PM2.5) sources for Mumbai.
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The western NGT bench, comprising Justice Sheo Kumar Singh and expert member Siddhanta Das, directed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) authorities to study the impact of permitting brick kilns in MMR and submit a report within three months.
The matter was heard on July 1, while the order was published on August 28.
The case will be heard next on October 10.
NGT was hearing a January 2, 2018, application by the environment group, Vanashakti, that had sought action – both closure and penal — against brick kiln manufacturers operating without licences and environment clearance in the MMR.
The plea had expressed concern about the desertification in the Tansa valley region. It had drawn the tribunal’s attention to villages in the Thane and Palghar regions. The application had focused on Usgaon village, which has a population of 700 people. But the plea had stated that the MPCB authorities were aware of the fact that there were 35 operational brick kilns, which were located 300 metres away from the village, and posed a grave health hazard for the villagers.
NGT noted that the emissions from brick kilns could worsen the air quality in Palghar, Thane, Mumbai and Pune districts.
It directed both bodies to assess different types of brick kilns, their respective source emissions based on fuel usage, their impact on degradation of top soil, carrying capacity assessment, including the number of brick kilns, evaluate their performance against background pollutant concentration and carrying capacity of the area, and assess the impact of their operation on ambient air quality.
“It is necessary to look at the relevant data at different locations (for) 24-hour and monthly average during the relevant months. CPCB may collect such data for corresponding months of March, April, May and June 2019 and submit them before the next date (October 10). The break-up of location of the brick kilns district-wise may also be submitted,” the order stated.
The operation of brick kilns in MMR should be regulated through a graded response action plan (GRAP), it added. “In view of the expected higher concentration of PM emissions during winter months, brick kilns of high pollution in the region may be kept closed during this period,” it further stated.
The application had alleged that these illegal activities had not only caused water and air pollution but also affected the flora and fauna of the ecologically-fragile areas close to the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary (TWLS) and Tansa river valley.
The plea had also drawn attention to the negative impact on agriculture in the Thane and Palghar districts. “The state government is assisting these brick kiln units in illegal manufacturing and transportation of bricks through an informal lobby of builders in the Vasai-Virar and Palghar areas. Though such units are banned in an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ), such operations are underway at a rampant pace within the TWLS ESZ,” alleged Stalin D, director, Vanashakti.
Both CPCB and MPCB officials said they were preparing the report and it would be submitted before the next date of hearing but refrained from commenting on the matter because it was subjudice.
Vanashakti’s application had requested the tribunal to provide fly ash at site for brick manufacturers to avoid damaging the environment and to direct authorities to frame a comprehensive policy for regularly monitoring and inspecting brick kilns in Maharashtra.
NGT directed both the bodies to provide expert opinion on the issue of using fly ash, which is a by-product for making bricks after coal is burnt at thermal power plants.
Fly ash utilisation in making bricks within a 200-kilometre radius of thermal power plants helps reduce groundwater deterioration and improves air quality since it is an environmental hazard, if dumped openly or near water bodies, according to the Central government guidelines.
“This NGT order is most welcome because it emphasises the importance of ascertaining the carrying capacity of a region for allowing operation of brick kilns. Many places in MMR have a high number of brick kilns that continue to use old and traditional methods. The order directs the need for a cumulative impact assessment from CPCB and MPCB,” said Zaman Ali, the legal counsel for Vanashakti.
According to MPCB’s submissions before the NGT, a site inspection of brick kilns was undertaken between August 21 and 24, 2018, in Thane and Palghar districts, along with members of Vanashakti and the state revenue department.
The team had identified around 150 brick kilns in Vasai, Wada and Bhiwandi talukas. Each kiln had around 20,000 to 40,000 bricks and most of them were traditional brick kilns.
Some of them had coal stored on the premises or were spotted transporting coal through trucks.
The report requested NGT to direct CPCB to formulate and notify emission standards for traditional brick kilns.
However, NGT struck down the report, as it did not show the total number brick kilns in the two districts and also failed to highlight whether they were complying with air quality norms.
Maharashtra has over 15,000 brick kilns, producing around 17 billion bricks annually. They are located in rural areas in and around Thane, Palghar, Pune, Karad, Navi Mumbai, Nagpur, Nashik, Kolhapur, and Sangli districts.
According to the state environment department, these brick kilns are classified as orange category industries. The brick kiln units that produce more than 50,000 bricks a year require consent under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, but there are no guidelines on emission reduction or fuel technology use.
MPCB records show the Thane district alone had 996 brick manufacturers since 1991 of which 33 were using fly ash during manufacturing. The district collector had recommended the cancellation of lease for the rest 963 brick kilns. However, MPCB could not verify how many of these brick kilns had been shut down over the past 29 years.
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