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Coal plant could damage rainforest reserves, coral reefs, palm oil plantations in Malaysian Borneo

A proposed coal-fired power plant in Malaysian Borneo could damage the region’s world-renowned coral reefs, pollute air and water supplies, open Sabah’s biodiverse rainforests to mining, and undermine the state’s effort to promote itself as a destination for “green” investment and ecotourism, warn environmentalists leading an effort to block the project.

The scheme, which is backed by the federal Tenaga Nasional Berhad and state energy company, Sabah Electricity Sdn. Bhd, has faced strong opposition and already been forced to re-locate twice since it was conceived more than two years ago. The 300-MW plant is now planned for a coastal area that is situated in the middle of the Coral Triangle/Sulu Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion, an area renowned for astounding levels of biodiversity.

The coal-fired plant would initially be supplied with coal strip-mined in neighboring Kalimanatan, but NGOs fear that once these deposits are exhausted, mining could turn towards rich coal deposits that lie in nearby forest reserves, putting high diversity areas at risk. The power plant could drive further deforestation via the construction of transmission lines that may cut through nearby Tabin Wildlife Reserve, fragmenting forest that is home to half of Sabah’s remaining population of Critically Endangered Sumatran rhinos.

Environmentalists also worry the project will cause air pollution and a variety of other impacts, tarnishing Sabah’s emerging eco-tourism industry. Sulfur dioxide emissions from coal burning could trigger acid rain that would damage nearby forests and agricultural activities meant for food security, while wreaking havoc on the state’s marine ecosystems. The plant would discharge chlorine and sulfates into the ocean, boosting the likelihood of eutrophication and algal blooms. Thermal pollution too is potentially a problem, putting corals and other marine life at risk, while currents may carry discharge substantial distances, having a detrimental impact on marine reserves — including Tun Sakaran Marine Park and Sipadan Island — and fisheries, another vitally important source of income.

The coal plant would almost certainly lead Sabah away from its objective to become a leader in green technology, instead reinforcing the perception that it is a site for resource extraction, dirty power, and low-value commodity production. Spewing CO2 and particulate matter while potentially driving the destruction of rich tropical forests, themselves major carbon sinks, isn’t going to help Malaysia — already under pressure for having the world’s largest emissions growth since 1990 among middle and upper income countries — burnish its environmental credentials on the international stage. For example while Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak pledged a 40 percent cut in carbon dioxide intensity by 2020 at climate talks in Copenhagen, a new coal-fired plant would work directly against this goal.

On December 22, 2008, the earthen wall of a containment pond at Tennessee’s Kingston Fossil Plant failed, releasing 4 million cubic meters of fly ash slurry. The slurry — laced with arsenic, lead, chromium, manganese, and barium — covered 120 hectares of land, damaging homes and polluting the local river. The clean-up cost is estimated at $675 and $975 million. The slurry was generated by coal burning at the plant. Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Further the plant isn’t even leading-edge when it comes to coal burning. The plant will not capture carbon dioxide emissions, nor is it a high efficiency or “supercritical” plant design, which would reduce emissions, according to energy experts who are familiar with the plans. The plant will have only basic NOx, SOx, and wastewater controls, discharging pollution into the skies and the sea. Emissions will exacerbate haze, a chronic problem that regularly draws complaints from Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and neighboring countries.

The preliminary Terms of Reference for the plant is also woefully inadequate. It makes no mention of the environmental impact of the CO2 emissions and exacerbation of global warming, the threat of pollution from the barges that will bring the coal or the large-scale desalination system that will suck up 132 cubic meters of water a day for 25 years, pumping hot, super-saline water back into the ocean. It also neglects to detail the transmission lines that will be needed to carry electricity to other areas (the power plant is located far from any load centers), and fails to factor in the potential loss in jobs and tourism or even the effects of rising coal prices on the total cost of the project. The Coral Triangle/Sulu Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion and Tabin Wildlife Reserve are not even mentioned as ‘Sensitive Areas’.

So why is the coal project moving forward? The Malaysian power company tells Sabahans via full-page ads that the plant is needed to bring them power. Otherwise, it warns, the east coast of Sabah will continue to face blackouts. But opponents, led by a grassroots initiative known as Green SURF (Sabah Unite to Re-power the Future) formed by local NGOs, say the poor performance of Sabah’s power sector is the result of poorly maintained existing machinery and lack of putting other options such as hydropower into practice which had already been planned, and then stalled. The group maintains that Sabah has less environmentally damaging options for generating electricity, including small-scale hydroelectric, solar, wind, and waste biomass. To support this view, Green SURF is investigating and promoting alternative and more sustainable energy sources, in line with the government’s National Green Technology Policy, which aims to spearhead the development of green technology to conserve the environment by increasing renewable sources of energy and promoting efficient energy use.

It will be up to Sabahans to determine whether their future will be a return to old technology, or a move forward towards greener, more advanced options.

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