A dike at a coal ash pond at a power plant in India gave way on April 10, killing at least two people while four others are missing, according to a local official. The spill covered several acres of cropland in the area.

K.V.S. Choudary, the district collector and the top public official in the Singrauli district in central India, told local media the incident occurred at the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project, a site owned by Reliance Power. Choudary said one worker and five local residents were carried away by the flow of ash from the 4,000-MW plant.

POWER in 2016 reported on problems at the power plant.

“The breach occurred owing to the negligence of the plant,” Choudary told The Hindu newspaper in a story published Saturday. He said the ash “has flown through a channel to the Rihand dam.”

Compensation for Those Impacted

Choudary said district officials would conduct a survey of the damaged areas and secure compensation for those impacted by the spill. District administrators immediately ordered shelter and food for those affected, he said.

A local resident told The Hindu that, “Three months ago, we staged a sit-in for 24 days outside the Reliance plant. We flagged the breach could happen any time to the authorities. Reliance had given in writing that it won’t happen. And even the administration had verified it.”

Sasan Power Limited, a subsidiary of Reliance Power, in a statement said, “We are deeply anguished by the incident involving the break in the ash dump yard wall at our Sasan Power Plant. The break in ash dump yard wall pushed the water, leading to break in the boundary wall affecting some thatched houses and minor land parcel.”

Sasan said the company was investigating the incident. “The power plant operations continue as the relief and restoration work is not affected by the same. We are closely working with locals and the district administration in relief and restoration work,” it said.

Choudary said the bodies of the two people killed were found “as far as five kilometers away from the ash dike breach site.” He said the four people missing also are presumed dead.

He told The Hindu that “a National Disaster Response Force team from Varanasi of 30 rescuers is searching for the missing.” Choudary said those caught up in the incident were inside their homes, near the ash pond, at the time of the incident.

Third Incident in Past Year

Local officials said it was at least the third time in the past year that a dike at a coal ash storage site in the district has failed. Earlier reports said a dike at an ash pond operated by Essar was breached in August 2019, and a similar incident occurred in October of last year at a plant operated by NTPC Ltd.

Choudary on Saturday said that in response to the NTPC incident, he had asked all coal-based power plants in the region to strengthen the dikes around their coal ash ponds.

Officials said the ash from Friday’s spill covered a large area in the town of Sasan, in India’s central Madhya Pradesh state.

Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at New-Delhi based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told Reuters in a story published Saturday that the coal ash is a “hazardous cocktail” of heavy metals known to cause liver and kidney ailments. Studies performed in 2012 by India’s Centre for Science and Environment found mercury levels in blood samples from residents in the region, which is home to several coal-fired power plants, to be six times more than what is considered safe.

Reuters reported Saturday that another local official, not authorized to comment on the incident, said the ash in the soil was likely to impact agricultural output for at least two seasons as it covered several fields used to grow food crops. The official said unspecified “strict action” would be taken against Reliance Power.

Reuters said Reliance Power indicated it was working with local officials in response to the incident, but didn’t comment specifically on the official’s statement regarding possible actions against the company.

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).