Whitewashing Coal Waste

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Laila Afifa

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  • TEMPO.CO, JakartaThe government removed the ash resulting from burning coal in power plants from the category of hazardous and toxic waste. The industry sector is not yet ready to exploit it.

    ONE of the worst legacies of President Joko Widodo's administration will be Annex XIV of Government Regulation No. 22/2021 on environmental protection. This regulation deriving from the Job Creation Law removes the ash resulting from the burning of coal from the B3 category of hazardous and toxic waste.

    The Jokowi administration is gambling with the future of forthcoming generations. A 2017 investigation by the United Nations Environmental program in Indramayu, Suralaya and Cirebon, West Java, found that the waste left over from the burning of coal at electricity power stations contained at least 16 types of chemical. These chemicals harm the organs of the people who inhale them from the brain to the joints in their toes.

    Earthjustice, an environmental organization from the United States, even issued a warning that there is no safe level for lead contained in coal ash. Lead damages the nervous system, heart and cardiovascular organs, particularly in children. In the long term, ash inhaled by children can even cause a reduction in intelligence.

    A study by researchers from University College London reported in the April 2021 edition of the journal Environmental Research found that 10.2 million people every year die as a result of air pollution, the majority of them under five years old. Most air pollution is a result of the burning of coal to generate electricity. The government's decision to remove coal ash from the list of dangerous waste seems to ignore this scientific data.

    It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the government is serving the interests of the coal and electricity generating companies. The processing of dangerous waste is very expensive. Companies are obliged to either process it themselves or pay a third party to do it. The decision by the government to remove coal ash from the danger category frees them of this obligation.

    As the result, coal-fired steam power plants, which make up 64 percent of all power stations, will no longer need to filter the ash to stop it from polluting the air. And cement plants would no longer have to provide storage for the waste before it is processed. Coal ash will be inhaled by everybody living near power stations.

    Companies and the government reason that coal ash has been removed from category B3 to make it easier to process. According to data from the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the 109 million tons of coal consumed per year produces 15 million tons of ash, and only 1 percent of this is used to make bricks. They calculate that companies could earn income of Rp400 million per day by processing coal ash. Strangely, the same opinion was supported by the Corruption Eradication Commission, which sent a letter to President Joko Widodo.

    This reasoning that seems to make sense is in fact a ruse. If its aim is for the ash to be processed, the government should oblige industry to exploit it. With it no longer being in category B3, industry no longer has any obligation to process it. And the processing industry is not even ready. State electricity company PLN only processes 1.08 million tons of the 2.9 million tons of fly ash and bottom ash (FABA) produced every year.

    Before it is too late, the government should revoke this regulation. Coal ash should be returned to the dangerous waste category. Then, the government needs to oblige industry to process it. Incentives could be provided to companies that meet this obligation. The risk to the health of many Indonesians is too great compared to the claims of the investment that could result from coal ash being removed from the category of dangerous waste.

    Read the Complete Story in Tempo English Magazine