Vol. 5 Num 1139 Sun. August 12, 2007  

Open-pit Coal Mining
Can German experience benefit Bangladesh?

Recently, several national dailies (the Daily Star, Janakantha, and Naya Digonta) have published a series of articles on open-pit coal mining in Germany following a visit by their journalists to that country.

The timing and the topic of these reports are extremely crucial as the government of Bangladesh is currently reviewing an export-oriented coal policy, which was initially drafted by a private organisation that favours open-pit coal mining in Bangladesh.

The Daily Star has published a three-part report on August 4-6 which echoed the same sentiments as the facilitating organisation, AEC, about appropriateness of open-pit coal mining in Phulbari coalfield . AEC was declared as unwanted by the people of Phulbari following a massive protest that ended up taking many lives in August 2006.

The DS report made many odd parallels between open-pit coal mining in Germany and the proposed open-pit coal mining in Phulbari. Furthermore, it emphasised how Bangladesh can learn from German open-pit coal mining, how Germany shows the way for open-pit coal mining in Bangladesh, and how German experience can solve Bangladesh crisis.

Since Bangladesh lacks experience in coal mining, it certainly should look towards international experiences, but such a survey should include the negative instances as well. The Daily Star published BEN Energy Panel's recommendations on June 23. Our (this writer was a co-author) analysis raised a number of serious concerns with open-pit coal mining. The DS report did not cite any of those.

Germany is not Bangladesh by any stretch of imagination when it comes to geologic, socio-economic, and environmental settings as they relate to open-pit coal mining. Germany has an average population density of 232 per square km, whereas Bangladesh's population density is four times higher. Coal mining in Germany is done by homegrown companies, as the DS report put it, to meet the national energy demands, whereas, AEC is not a homegrown company, and will not mine coal to meet the national energy security and demands in Bangladesh. In fact, as per their proposal, they will export two-thirds of the mined coal during the first 10 years, and one-third afterwards. The government of Bangladesh will receive 6-20 per cent of royalty for the mined coal.

Despite strict environmental regulations and monitoring of coal mining operations, the environmental degradation caused by open-pit and underground coal mining is staggering in Germany. By one account, environmental degradation of soil and water caused by coal mining will require 25 billion dollars to clean up. In fact, after re-unification of two Germany, the government had to spend one billion German marks to clean up the environment in some parts of former East Germany. Coal mining is also responsible for subsidence of land areas, cracks in buildings in nearby areas, acid drainage that kill all aquatic life in water bodies, and reduction in real estate values due to unsightly appearance in mining districts.

The German laws allow forceful evacuation and resettlement of people in order to facilitate mining operations. Bangladesh's mineral resources belong to her people, and if the people are not convinced about open-pit coal mining then shouldn't the government pay heed? The massive protest in Phulbari last year is a vivid testimony of the people's desire. Following the deaths in Phulbari in August 2006, the government signed an agreement with the local people that prohibits AEC's operation and open-pit coal mining in Bangladesh. In fact, the environmental costs and subsidies to coal mining have become prohibitive, and the German government has decided to close all its underground coal mining by the year 2018.

The third part of The Daily Star report addressed management of water resources in coal mining operations. This part of the report is misleading with wrong information about the quality of water in a mined area. Pumping of groundwater is an integral part of coal mining. Over-pumping can lead to subsidence of land and can cause many other structural problems to buildings and infrastructure. For example, the city of Essen in Germany has subsided by five metres, and the entire area is now located below groundwater table. To keep the area dry, pumping of groundwater has become a permanent phenomenon.

Bangladesh is a low-lying country, and any subsidence of land area will have the potential to create increased flooding and water-logging. Most importantly, the water pumped out of a mine or surface water coming out of coal-waste pile is not suitable for human consumption. Most of the time, such water is loaded with dissolved heavy metals, including arsenic. Water from coal mines is acidic and cannot support any aquatic life, nor can be used for agricultural purposes without expensive treatment. The mine-filled lakes in Germany that The Daily Star report mentioned are also acidic and contaminated with various metals. Those lakes cannot be used for fisheries since fish can accumulate metals in their body, which are not recommended for human consumption.

Degradation of both surface water and groundwater is one of the major problems with open-pit coal mining anywhere in the world. Remediation of degraded water from acid mine drainage (AMD) is extremely expensive, and can take decades before all waters and the environment can return to normalcy. It is na´ve to suggest that such water can be used for agriculture, drinking, and recharge of Dhaka city's water table.

Considering the fact that The Daily Star is an esteemed newspaper, and that a draft coal policy is under review by the government, it is important that all aspects of coal mining issues are equally covered in a journalistic report. From the reports published by

the DS, it is not clear if the reporter ever consulted with local people who were affected by coal mining and who were resettled. The reporter perhaps did not communicate with any reputable researcher or environmental watchdog groups to know about the flip side of the story.

I hope The Daily Star will publish this writer's response in an attempt to balance the story of open-pit coal mining and the lessons that we can learn from international experiences, including Germany and elsewhere.

Md. Khalequzzaman is Associate Professor of Geology and Chair of the Department of Geology & Physics, Lock Haven University, US.