SURALAYA, Banten: Villagers in the Indonesian district of Suralaya, Banten province, have for over 35 years lived near a massive coal-fired power station.
The Suralaya coal power plant is vital as it supplies electricity not only to Banten province but also to other parts of Java island as well as Bali. It produces about 3,750 TWh of electricity per year.
Apart from the electricity, it also produces black smoke which is visible even on a cloudy day when CNA visited earlier this month.
Born and raised just metres away from the power plant, 72-year-old Saniman claimed that his health started to deteriorate after the power plant started to operate in 1985.
“I have breathing problems. My heart and lungs are not the best,” he told CNA.
Mr Saniman, who goes by one name, used to be a farmer but as his health deteriorated over time, he became a vegetables reseller.
He has long suspected that the smoke produced by the coal-fired power station, which until recently was classified as hazardous waste, is the main cause of his health issues since he is not a smoker.
But despite complaining to the village head with the other villagers who also have similar complaints, he said nothing has changed over the years.
In February, President Joko Widodo signed a regulation that delisted fly ash and bottom ash from power plants, often referred to as coal waste, from a list of hazardous waste.
The regulation is a derivative of the country’s omnibus law which was passed last year, meant to create new jobs and investments.
The move sparked anger among environmentalists who have long argued that coal power plants are damaging to the environment as well as the health of people who live nearby.
However, the authorities said that such ash shows no hazardous characteristics, while laws still exist to regulate how these waste should be handled.
Indonesia is the world’s top coal producer and more than half of its energy is produced from coal power plants which emit carbon dioxide and are believed to be the source of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
Although Indonesia has ratified the Paris agreement on climate change and pledged to reduce at least 29 per cent of its carbon emissions by 2030, the government says its energy mix will still be reliant on coal in the next few years.
Mr Merah Johansyah, the coordinator of Mining Advocacy Network JATAM, has condemned the new regulation.
“Fly ash and bottom ash are very dangerous to people’s health as well as the ecosystem and our environment,” said Mr Johansyah.
He noted that even before the new regulation was passed, fly ash and bottom ash have been handled "recklessly". With them being reclassified as non-hazardous waste, he expects things to get worse.
He cited at least two cases where coal-fired power stations have impacted people’s health negatively and also polluted the air and water nearby.
“People living nearby have witnessed fly ash and bottom ash being discarded and piled, forming mountains (of waste) around the coal-fired power stations as happened in East Kalimantan, which is only 300m from residential areas.
“They were neglected and during the dry season, if the weather is hot and the wind is strong, these dust particles scatter and fly all the way to people's homes ... polluting settlements and endangering the health of residents,” said Mr Johansyah.
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He noted that in Kutai Kartanegara, East Kalimantan, those who live near a coal-fired power plant have daily complaints of respiratory diseases.
“From coughing, shortness of breath, headaches and various disorders in the respiratory infection category. Likewise in another case, outside East Kalimantan in Palu which is also very close to residential areas, it has even claimed lives.
“There are 14 residents who have died in the last three years due to black lung and cancer, including nasopharyngeal cancer,” Mr Johansyah stated.
According to Mr Fajri Fadhillah, head of the pollution and environmental damage control division of the Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law (ICEL), the main difference between handling hazardous and non-hazardous waste is the latter can be handled on the producer's premises.
"The waste doesn't need to be exported to a third party's place, so it is cost-efficient … If it is non-hazardous waste, it can be reused immediately,” he said.
On the other hand, hazardous waste must be sampled and tested before it can be reused, Mr Fadhillah explained.
Back in Suralaya, Banten, CNA spoke to Mr Saniman’s cousin who lives further away, about 1km. He too has respiratory complaints.
“I am a farmer. In the past, I had no disease. Since the coal-fired power plant existed, there are now many diseases,” said Mr Sanudin, who goes by one name.
He has been a smoker for many years, but insisted that his health issues were brought about by the power plant.
The 69-year-old said that even his crops now die easily.
“Never mind humans, even bananas die due to the project (coal-fired power plant). If I cough, sometimes the ash comes out ... The colour is black.
"The banana leaves are also black, the coal ash lands on the banana and mango leaves, especially if the wind is strong," he said.
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An epidemiologist from the University of Indonesia Pandu Riono said coal-fired power plants in many countries produce pollution and this will impact the respiratory health of people living nearby.
“The question is what is the definition of dangerous? So far dangerous means it disrupts the respiratory function …. If we correlate it with death, one will not immediately die but the respiratory function will decrease and the person may be susceptible to other diseases.
"Therefore, if there are assumptions that activities or the waste produced by coal-fired power plants are not dangerous, I want proof," Mr Riono said.
FLY ASH AND BOTTOM ASH SHOW NO HAZARDOUS CHARACTERISTICS: MINISTRY
Ms Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, the director-general of waste and hazardous and toxic materials management who is with the environment and forestry ministry said there are sound reasons for the recent policy decision.
She explained that the government delisted fly ash and bottom ash as hazardous waste because coal-fired power plants use temperatures as high as 800 degrees Celsius, which leads to complete combustion. The ash, therefore, does not show characteristics of hazardous waste such as being flammable, explosive, reactive to cyanide and sulfide or corrosive.
Mdm Ratnawati said the authorities have assessed fly ash and bottom waste of 19 coal-fired power plants. It was found that there are no parameters that exceed the toxicity reference value as stated in a 2018 minister of manpower regulation.
“Even though it is declared non-hazardous waste, non-hazardous waste producers still have the obligation to comply with the standards and technical requirements stipulated and contained in the environmental document approval,” she pointed out.
She added that the fly ash and bottom ash can subsequently be used as a building material for cement substitution, roads and underground mines among others.
In line with this, the director-general of minerals and coal of the ministry of energy and mineral resources Ridwan Jamaludin said that in the future, fly ash and bottom ash will be converted into products that are environmentally friendly.
“We see it as a change in governance, not just changing from hazardous waste, but what we see is what it can be used for,” said Mr Jamaludin.
The director-general of electricity of the ministry of energy and mineral resources Rida Mulyana said other countries also do not classify fly ash and bottom ash as being hazardous.
These include Australia, Canada, Japan, Russia, South Africa and the United States. Key destinations where Indonesia exports its coal to, including China, India and South Korea also do not regard such ash as being hazardous, he said.
LAWS STILL EXIST TO REGULATE COAL WASTE
The new regulation came about after 17 industry associations lobbied the government last year to remove fly ash and bottom ash as hazardous waste.
Mdm Liana Bratasida, who is the director executive of the pulp and paper industry association (APKI) and acts as the coordinator among the associations related to the fly ash and bottom ash issue, told CNA that they made the request based on their studies.
"We are not asking the government without any basis. We asked based on comparisons with other countries," she said.
"We have tested the use of fly ash and bottom ash for road paving. In the past, when it was still considered hazardous waste, it had to go through a very long process.
"All the studies have considered the costs and benefits, not only social, environmental, but economic too. The three considerations are seen in a balanced way, not just heavy on the economy, not just heavy on the environment,” she pointed out.
Mdm Bratasida stressed that even though the coal waste from power plants is no longer classified as hazardous waste, it does not mean that the industry is not being monitored.
It still has to report to the government what it is doing with its waste and manage it as stipulated in ministerial regulations, she said.
Others remain sceptical.
Mr Fadhillah of ICEL said several questions still remain. For instance, he wondered if the 19 coal-fired power plants surveyed by the government are representative of all coal-fired power stations throughout Indonesia, as the fly ash and bottom ash produced depend on the type of coal being burnt, the type of combustion technology and the air pollution control technology used in the power plants.
Thus, he proposed that the delisting of such ash as being hazardous waste should best be assessed on a case by case basis, as Indonesia has about 40 coal-fired power plants.
"In my opinion, it should be made case-specific. If there is a business person who wants fly ash and bottom ash of a coal-fired power station to be declassified in his area, he can submit a request to the ministry of environment. And there is room for people to participate, whether they object or agree," said Mr Fadhillah.
Mr Sanudin in Banten, however, was less sanguine.
“I am just a fool. Not strong enough to take a stance because I’m only one person, unless the whole village doesn’t accept the (waste of the) power plant. Only we understand that it causes diseases."