Foreign flag carriers are set to unload imported coal from the mother vessel anchored in the deep sea, to dispatch it to the 1,320MW Maitree Super Thermal Power Project jetty in Rampal of Bagerhat district.
Even though local lighterage vessels were supposed to do the job, now the authorities are allowing foreign flag-carriers as local vessels do not fulfil certain criteria set by the Department of Environment for carrying coal imported for the thermal plant near the Sundarbans mangroves.
The Department of Shipping has already given its nod on allowing foreign vessels to transport the imported coal, said Engr Kazi Absar Uddin Ahmed, managing director of the Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company (P) Ltd (BIFPCL) – the project implementing agency.
He, however, said the vessels and coal sourcing countries are yet to be finalised.
"Foreign vessels have been given the approval considering capacity and other criteria – the vessels should be covered and self-propelled ones," he explained.
The environment department suggests using larger lighter carriage vessels to ensure less movement in the channel and reduce the risk of environmental pollution.
Lighterage vessels have to have a capacity to carry 8,000 tonnes of goods whereas the local carriers have a maximum carrying capacity of 2,600 tonnes, said stakeholders.
Kazi Absar Uddin Ahmed of the BIFPCL said foreign lightering vessels will not be continued after three years, as it is expected that local vessels will improve their capacity by this time.
Mohammed Mezbah Uddin Chowdhury, secretary to the shipping ministry, however, told The Business Standard that it is not likely that the lighterage industry in the country will gain the capacity within three years, even though the government has some expansion programmes.
"As part of the expansion programmes, the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation is continuously trying to increase its vessels. We're also going to procure mother vessels to enhance the capacity of the corporation," he said.
The 1st unit of the 1,320MW power plant will commence a test run on 16 December this year – the 50th Victory Day of Bangladesh, sources at BIFPCL told The Business Standard (TBS).
For the month-long test run, the BIFPCL has floated a short tender to import 3 lakh tonnes of coal and the closing date for the bid document submission is 29 July.
Another tender has been floated to import 72 lakh tonnes of coal. The last date to submit the bid document for this tender is 5 August.
As per the project plan, the project will be run on coal imported from Indonesia, Australia, or South Africa. All of the coal under these two tenders will be lighteraged by foreign-flag carriers for three years.
To prepare the coal shed in the project area, BIFPCL has already started to import coal from the neighbouring country India. The first consignment of Indian coal was brought to Mongla port in the first week of this month.
The 1,320MW Rampal thermal power plant is being built at a cost of $2 billion by BIFPCL, a joint venture between India's NTPC Limited and the Bangladesh Power Development Board.
Established on 1,834 acres of land, the power plant is situated 14 kilometres north of the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) world heritage site.
Environmentalists have voiced their concerns after learning that low-quality coal would be imported from India for the project.
Civil society representatives, as well as national and international environment activists, have been protesting against the project since its inception due to its location and the types of fuel to be used there, fearing the power plant could destroy the world's largest mangrove forest and biodiversity.