Jitters persist over coal mining plan

Lamu residents hold protests againt plans to mine coal in the area citing environmental concerns [Photo courtesy]
For nearly a decade now, Kenya has been exploring plans to exploit coal generated electricity to address its power shortfall.

Following the discovery of coal reserves along the Mui River basin in 2010, the country had expected to start injecting low-priced electricity to the national grid by September last year in what was widely believed to be a panacea to the country’s energy challenges.

The first 10 wells drilled in Mui concluded there were commercial quantities of coal. The hopes were further made alive by the planned construction of another 1,050MW coal-powered power plant to be located at Kwasasi area in Lamu County in the Kenyan coast valued at US$200 million.

Experts had projected that the Mui basin coal alone would expand the country’s energy generation capacity by 5,000 megawatts in two to three years from the current 2,152 megawatts which would in turn lower tariffs and cut costs of doing business.

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It was hoped the coal projects would quickly raise access from the current 15 per cent to more than 60 per cent by 2022. Kenya's grid connected electricity capacity is 2,299 MW and supply is mainly hydro and fossil fuel sources. Petroleum accounts for 80 per cent of the commercial energy needs.

But the ambitious plans are yet to kick off both in Mui and Lamu, where the coal projects have been met with resistance over environmental concerns and the possibility of thousands of people being displaced from their homes. Residents of the two areas claim they are groping in the dark on what will happen to them, their children and grand children.

Since the signing of the benefit sharing agreement between Kitui leaders and Chinese firm, Fenxi Industry Mining Company, which was contracted to mine coal way back in 2014, little has happened in Mui five years down the line.

On the ground in Mui and Lamu, there’s ineptness and doubts. “The fear is greater than our optimism,” say residents. The area is home to over 30,000 households threatened with eviction. People here mostly use kerosene and firewood for lighting and cooking.

In Lamu, residents have been up in arms, saying they would not allow projects that undermine environmental conservation.  The project is being undertaken by Amu Power Company.

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“We stand here to speak out and educate our people on the pros and cons posed by coal energy and should not be viewed as enemies of development,” Idarus Mzee Mwenye, a local religious leader said recently at a community meeting at the Mkunguni Square, Lamu island.

“Coal has no room in Lamu and construction of the plant should never be allowed,” said Abdallah Kasimu, a resident

The sentiments in Lamu are as loud. “Our greatest fear is that whatever we may get as compensation for our land may not be enough to resettle us and our families and feed us until we settle,” says Solomon Mutisya, whose area could contain at least 400 million tonnes of coal deposits, according to prospectors.

Health experts paint a gloomy picture for the locals who they say risk getting exposed to afflictions brought by mercury, lead, manganese, cobalt, zinc sulphur and other toxic compounds that form part of the waste by products from coal burning plants.

Apart from cancers, abnormal and failed births in humans and animals caused by the ingestion of virtually all heavy metals, mercury that occurs at rates of approximately 25 pounds per 100 megawatts of electricity at an average coal burning plant is known to cause reduced intelligence in newborns.

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While the people of Mui are a frustrated lot, passion for the land that has fed them and their livestock since time immemorial is strong. The land is fertile and terribly so, an indication that it was once covered by thick forests that subsided under water from the surrounding highlands.

The low lying basin is ringed by Mutitu, Nuu, Zombe and other squat hills that are a reliable source of water to this day. The riparian reaches of the Mui River, where seasonal flooding is a regular phenomenon, is a bread basket of no mean stature.

The county government of Kitui under whose jurisdiction Mui basin falls, insists agreements signed by the government with consortiums including Fenxi Mining Company of China and the local Centum and Gulf Energy won’t hold until an environmental assessment and land adjudication is done to produce title deeds to facilitate compensation to land owners.

Among agreements still pending is the completion of the external infrastructure feasibility study that includes the requisite road and railway network, transmission facilities and water supply outside the coal operation area.

There is heated talk across Europe and the US over coal mining and nuclear power plants, with key players like Germany and Britain opting to halt plans to construct more nuclear plants.

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More questions linger as to whether developing countries are being naive in thinking they have capacity to mine coal and adequately address challenges that come with it. Analysts believe when such projects suffer cost overruns, the taxpayer bears the burden.

KenyaMui River basin