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Displacing People For Profit: Obama Administration Supports Controversial Coal Project in Bangladesh

Why is the Obama administration covertly pushing for an internationally opposed open-pit coal mine operation in Bangladesh?

While President Obama tours the country raising money for his reelection campaign, we are likely to hear well-crafted speeches that are supportive of clean energy and critical of big polluters. In West Virginia and Wyoming, he will no doubt talk glowingly of so-called "clean-coal" technology. In California, he might speak to solar's great potential, and in the Midwest, perhaps the whirling future of wind power.

There will probably be little mention, however, of Obama's rubber-stamping of coal mine leases on public lands, or his continued support for a nuclear power renaissance. He'll also be unlikely to address how his administration is covertly pushing for an internationally opposed open-pit coal mine operation in Bangladesh.

The massive mine, which was originally proposed in the mid-1990s, has been met with a number of roadblocks along the way, mostly in the form of grassroots outrage. Located in the Phulbari area of northwest Bangladesh, the mine would involuntarily displace anywhere between 40,000 and 200,000 villagers -- with 40,000 being the conservative estimate of the company pursuing the mine. The project would also displace indigenous populations who trace their ancestry in the region back 5,000 years.

Opposition to the mine has not always been met with a democratic response. In 2006 during a massive demonstration, three young protesters were shot by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles. A leading opponent of the mine, Mr. Nuruzuman, was publicly tortured by the Bangladesh military in February 2007. WikiLeaks recently disclosed a US embassy cable on training Bangladesh anti-terrorism units in Britain on "investigative interviewing techniques."

The bloody killings were followed by nationwide strikes, and eventually an agreement between the Bangladeshi government and the protestors that Asia Energy, the holder of the development lease, would leave the country.

Five years later, Asia Energy has refused to leave. Instead, the company changed its name to Global Coal Management (also referred to as GCM Resources) and has maintained being "fully committed" to the Phulbari project, despite ongoing opposition from people across Bangladesh. According to GCM's project plans, the Phulbari coal mine would operate for at least 36 years and extract 16 million tons of coal annually at peak production. Of this, three million tons would be used domestically, including the construction of at least one 500 megawatt coal plant. The remaining coal would be exported. All in all, it would be a large source of new greenhouse gas emissions in an already warming world, as well as a humanitarian disaster for the people of Bangladesh.

"Thousands of families would be immediately removed from the mine site, losing their homes and agricultural lands," Paula Palmer, director of the Global Response Program for Cultural Survival told journalist Jeff Biggers. "Independent researchers estimate that as many as 220,000 people around the mine site would eventually be affected by reduced access to water, forcing them to abandon their lands. There is no plan for compensating these people for their suffering and loss."

An environmental assessment of the project by GCM notes that the mine would dig up over 5,100 hectares of land, most of which is fertile farmland. Being one of the world's most densely populated countries, the loss of productive farmland would be particularly hard felt in Bangladesh, especially for residents who rely on the land for their daily needs. The project would also divert the current flow of the Khari Pul river, and would use explosions to unearth the coal, letting loose toxic coal dust.

Huge pumps would run 24 hours a day for the 30 years of the mining project, pumping hundreds of millions of liters of water a day to prevent the mine from flooding. As a result, groundwater in an area covering about 500 square kilometers would be lowered, drying up wells used by farmers and residents. GCM says some of this water will be injected back into the ground at a distance from the mine, and can be used by residents for irrigation. But digging up coal uncovers heavy metals that can be toxic at certain levels, as well as acid-forming sulphur, posing potential health hazards.

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