Ideas & Debate

Kenya could do without coal's poisonous legacy


At the heart of opposition to the planned 1050MW coal-fired power plant at Kwasasi, about 21km from Lamu Old Town are the environmental and health ramifications of coal power production. FILE PHOTO | NMG

At the heart of opposition to the planned 1050MW coal-fired power plant at Kwasasi, about 21km from Lamu Old Town are the environmental and health ramifications of coal power production.

Ahmed Ali, founder of Lamu Youth Alliance, is deeply concerned. He contends that Lamu residents may soon be breathing toxic air and eating food cultivated on lands contaminated with heavy metals from acid rain.

Ahmed is worried that the controversial coal plant or the massive port under construction will not only impact the cultural heritage in Lamu but may also lead to a loss of its UNESCO world cultural heritage status.

Coal ash from the plant will be disposed of in ash, pits which will contaminate ground water, ocean waters and marine ecosystem through leaching, spills or even monitored discharges. Most residents in Lamu depend on wells and borehole water for domestic use.

Contaminated ground water is thus a real health risk. Consumption of water contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and others elevates the risk of cancer, damage to the neurological and gastrointestinal systems, kidneys as well as the immune system.

An analysis of 2018 data from 265 coal-fired power plants in the USA carried out by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found that 91 per cent of those plants were contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of coal ash pollutants.

Nitrous oxides from coal combustion cause cardiovascular and lung diseases and children are particularly susceptible to such airborne pollutants.

Particulate matter from coal combustion are associated with smog, respiratory diseases, cardiac diseases, low birth weight and premature births.

Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides similarly contribute to the formation of nitrates and acid rain, which acidifies water bodies, damages vegetation and coastal ecosystems.

Nitrate pollutants cause algae blooms that kill fish and stifle marine biodiversity. Whereas the above repercussions will be felt profoundly in Lamu, neighbouring counties and the country in general, the plant's carbon dioxide emissions will spawn global consequences.

Carbon dioxide emissions from this single plant will equal the current total emissions of Kenya’s entire energy sector, thus doubling the national carbon dioxide emissions and contributing to accelerated climate change. That will be contrary to both the National Climate Change Action Plan and the Paris Agreement where Kenya committed to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by the year 2030.

Manda Bay area where the plant is to be situated is endowed with an extensive mangrove forest, seagrass beds and coral reefs. Dredging to operationalise the plant will result in permanent loss of those habitats.

The plant will draw large amounts of cold water from the ocean to supply the cooling system and discharge the waters back into the ocean after absorbing the heat.

Warm water discharge into the sensitive Lamu marine ecosystem will be detrimental to organisms like corals and other marine creatures but conducive for invasive species to thrive. Process wastewater from the coal plant like oil-contaminated wastewater and chemical contaminated wastewater are an additional source of pollution.

There is a global coming to terms with the toxicity of coal and its longstanding hazardous effects on human health and the environment. Coal consumption for energy production in the US energy sector has been shrinking for 12 years and is projected to decline by a further eight per cent in 2019.

Across the Atlantic, EU leaders have endorsed the objective of reducing Europe's greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 per cent by 2050, as compared with their 1990 levels. The German Coal Commission has recommended coal-fired power generation be completely ended by 2038.

Coal energy is promoted as being low-cost. However, when factored in, the social and environmental costs of coal-generated electricity like pollution, greenhouse gases and terminal diseases make it substantially expensive.

Justification for such a counterproductive development in Kenya is lacking bearing in mind that demand for electricity has not outstripped supply. Kenya’s peak energy demand currently stands at about 1,832MW against a total installed capacity of 2,351MW.

Plans to increase energy generation capacity in anticipation of economic growth are imperative and in order. However, such plans should focus on renewable energy.

Kenya is endowed with a mix of renewables like geothermal, hydro, wind, solar and biomass which are all begging to be harnessed.

The Constitution guarantees the right to a clean and healthy environment, including the right to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations. Coal is considered the dirtiest of all fuels and is therefore at absolute odds with the right to a clean and healthy environment.

Olonyi is an environmental lawyer