A panel of judges has struck down the environmental clearance for a proposed 3.6 GW coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu, India.

The decision by the National Green Tribunal responded to an appeal by local villagers who cited concerns about water and air pollution in this already polluted area. In their review, the judges found that the “casual approach” to the project's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was patently unacceptable. More specifically, the tribunal reported that the EIA was “inadequate and erroneous” due in large part to faulty methodology as well as unreliable and inadequate data collection. According to Justin Guay with the Sierra Club International Climate Program, the EIA for the proposed IL&FS coal plant was "haphazardly slapped [together] in a mere two weeks."

India was the world's fourth largest consumer of energy in 2011 (behind China, the United States, and Russia) and the third largest coal producer in 2012. The country's 249 Gigawatts of installed electricity generation consists mostly of coal-fired power plants, which can produce an array of harmful air pollutants including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM). Other major sources of these air pollutants in India include transport and industry.

According to India's Ministry of Environments and Forests (MoEF), air pollution in Tamil Nadu already exceeds 2009 national Air Quality Standards. The MoEF's Central Pollution Control Board is responsible for monitoring key air pollutants including SO2, NOx, and PM (total suspended and respirable suspended - i.e. PM10). At least 23 cities in India currently experience air pollution levels that exceed the national standards. India launched a new air quality index in October in order to to help citizens understand local air pollution data and its implications for their health.

Due to their potentially negative impacts on human health, the World Health Organization (WHO) has set recommended concentration levels for many air pollutants including those tracked by the MoEF. In the case of particulate matter, these potential impacts include asthma and other respiratory illnesses, lung cancer and cardiopulmonary mortality. Globally, an estimated 800,000 early deaths occur each year as the result of combustion-related emissions (including both particulate matter and tropospheric ozone).

The WHO has previously stated that air quality in Delhi is comparable (and possibly worse) than that in Beijing, creating a major public health threat to the city's residents. According to Parthaa Bosu, Director of Clean Air Asia's India office, while air pollution in India might appear to be improving, in truth it "has gotten much smarter...It's no longer as visible and no longer stuck in your nose. Instead, it's landing directly in your lungs, getting you sick, and increasing your risks of cancer and other respiratory diseases.”

Photo Credit: Photo of smog over Connaught Place in New Delhi in November 2006 by Ville Miettinen/Flickr.