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UNESCO urges Bangladesh to cancel massive coal plant in one of the world’s largest mangrove forests

The United States is reportedly offering funding for a second plant nearby.

Bangladeshi protesters hold placards and a tiger effigy during an August protest against the proposed Rampal power plant. The plant will be near the Sundarbans, home to the world’s only population of mangrove forest tigers. CREDIT: AP Photo/A.M. Ahad
Bangladeshi protesters hold placards and a tiger effigy during an August protest against the proposed Rampal power plant. The plant will be near the Sundarbans, home to the world’s only population of mangrove forest tigers. CREDIT: AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

The world’s largest mangrove forest is in danger if a massive coal-fired power plant is not cancelled or moved, the World Heritage Center warns in a new report.

The Sundarbans — home to hundreds of varieties of birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles, including endangered species such as the Bengal tiger and the Ganges river dolphin — is only eight miles from the planned 1,320-megawatt Rampal coal plant. According to the report, air pollution, water pollution, increased shipping and dredging in the mangrove forest, and the development of infrastructure due to the plant are all “key concerns.”

“Our government must take immediate action to publicly cancel the Rampal plant.”

Power plants, especially coal plants, can destroy local ecology.

Burning coal also releases sulfur dioxide, which damages lungs and causes acid rain; nitrogen oxides, which cause smog and contribute to respiratory illnesses; heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, which are toxic; and arsenic, a poisonous compound that causes cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing as little as 50 parts per billion, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. These toxins can contaminate both the air and the water, killing humans and animals alike.

“Our government must take immediate action to publicly cancel the Rampal plant and associated river dredging, and pursue exclusively clean energy for all Bangladeshis that safeguards our water, air, fisheries, forests, wildlife, and our health,” Bangladeshi activist Sultana Kamal, of the National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (NCSS), said in a statement.

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The Rampal plant is expected to go online in 2018, and according to local images, work at the site was underway in March. The plant is being built adjacent to a river that flows into the Sundarbans, and freshwater flow has already been reduced.

Bangladeshis have been protesting this — and other — coal projects for years. Last spring, demonstrators marched 150 miles to protest the Rampal project. In other cases, protesters have been shot and killed or arrested.

But there are also long-term, global implications to these projects. Burning coal produces CO2. In fact, coal-fired power plants are one of the largest contributors to anthropogenic climate change, accounting for a quarter of CO2 emissions worldwide.

Yet it’s clear that Bangladesh needs additional grid capacity. Only about 65 percent of the country currently has access to consistent electricity, but as Kamal points out, “clean energy technologies are now less expensive than coal-fired power.”

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The push for clean energy is critical if the world is going to avoid the most severe implications of human-caused climate change — and one of the key ways developing nations such as Bangladesh can avoid building in decades of additional carbon pollution is to get financing from wealthier nations.

Instead, neighboring India is investing in the Rampal power plant through it’s Export-Import Bank. And recently, Friends of the Earth U.S. obtained documents suggesting that U.S. taxpayers, through the U.S. Export-Import Bank, might finance a second nearby coal project, known as Orion.

“Any U.S. government financing of coal plants would greatly undermine President Obama’s climate legacy, including his commitment under the Climate Action Plan to restrict financing coal plants overseas,” said Friends of the Earth U.S. campaigner Jenny Bock. “It is ridiculous, and indeed entirely counter-productive, that U.S. Ex-Im Bank is even considering financing a project like this in 2016.”

UNESCO notes that the Orion plant, as well as a nuclear facility being planned nearby, also needs to be investigated. Its report only looked at the first project.

Given the concern of the mission team in regards to potential impacts on the property, clarification is urgently needed on the current status of the Orion power plant, which is reportedly being planned adjacent to the Rampal power plant, as well as a proposed nuclear power plant in the vicinity of the Sundarbans, as they will all contribute towards the cumulative impact on the property and its overall integrity.

Last month, outside the U.S. Ex-Im Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., environmentalists staged a protest again funding overseas coal projects.