A Defence Ministry official told The Nation that the key stakeholders of the issue, including representatives of the villagers, Hayleys, and area government officials, had met with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at the Ministry on Thursday (1) afternoon to discuss the issue.
The official said the representatives of the village consisting religious leaders, environmental activists and lawyers had put forward four demands to Rajapaksa, urging for the closure of the factory, to provide water to the villages, launch investigations to determine cause of water pollution, and call the relevant company to provide compensation if investigations found them guilty of polluting the water.
Rajapaksa had reportedly said water would be provided to the people in bowsers, as a short-term solution. In addition, it was also decided to lay pipelines to the affected villages within two to three months. Representatives of Hayleys too had agreed to close down the factory temporarily until the investigations were over.
A source at Dipped Products told The Nation that the agitation against the factory is led by disgruntled parties following the sacking over 100 employees after a strike action earlier in the year. It was reported that most of those, who were sacked, were JVP members who were residents of the area.
In a media communiqué yesterday, Managing Director, Dipped Products Dr. Mahesha Ranasoma refuted allegations that the factory polluted ground water. “Our effluent water quality is regularly tested by the National Building and Research Organization (NBRO) and our facility operates with valid Environmental Protection Licence,” Ranasoma said. He stated that reports issued by the NBRO to-date indicated that the pH level of the treated water released by the factory to be between 6.5 and 8.2. “This shows that the treated water released from the factory is well within the accepted standards and does not in any way harm the environment,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry said the clash was instigated by the disgruntled ex-employees and the innocent people were merely victims.
The soil in the region is reportedly slightly acidic than the neutral levels. However, the water of some wells in the region reportedly recorded pH of even close to 2, which is way below the pH level for safe drinking. (At room temperature neutral pH of neutral water is 7. A lower value is acidic and a higher value is alkaline. Industrial wastewater should have a pH of the range 6.0 to 8.5 before discharge).
The Weeping Mother
The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Chairman Wimal Rubasinghe said that the CEA would conduct tests on industrial effluents of a factory if complaints are received. However, he said that complaints were received regarding this factory just over a week ago. Further speaking on the matter, he said that testing on industrial effluents should be carried out at a more regular basis, especially in the factories which use potentially harmful chemical compounds.
The CEA Chairman mentioned that well water quality can vary even from one well to the other. Therefore, he stated that more comprehensive study should be done before coming to conclusions. It has been decided to conduct tests on well water in the area with the involvement of several state institutions such as the Universities of Moratuwa, Peradeniya and Kelaniya, the Water Board, the CEA and the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI). He argued that the problem has been escalated out of proportions by certain political forces.
Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) dismissed the CEA’s assertion that it hadn’t received any complaints about the factory till last week.
He claimed area residents had earlier complained about the fumes that were allegedly emanating from the boilers used at the factory, which are in operation 24 hours a day.
“According to our information, 700 tons of wood is needed to feed these boilers. There is a lot of smoke that comes out from the funnels that carry the exhaust from the boilers. The smoke actually stays low to the ground in the mornings, causing breathing difficulties for people in the area, and we know some had complained about that to the CEA,” he stressed. Chamikara alleged while there were tanks within the premises designed to store chemical waste, instead of treating them to remove pollutants like they were supposed to, factory management had released them into the environment.
“They would just let the chemical wastewater flow out through the drainage system on rainy days. They weren’t treating the chemical waste to remove pollutants before disposal because that consumes a lot of electricity. They were trying to cut costs,” he charged.
The ECT believes the factory had been releasing waste into the environment in this way for nearly 10 years.
Chamikara said since this was a BOI funded project, it and the CEA should have regularly carried out inspections on the factory. However, this hasn’t happened, he added.
“The factory had been issued an Environment Protection License (EPL) by the CEA. The EPL is subject to strict conditions, and if there are any complaints, it is up to the CEA to investigate. The CEA could have acted on complaints received and temporarily suspended the factory’s EPL and force it to shut down pending investigations,” he explained.
The ECT member also questioned the role of the Defence Ministry in the whole saga, pointing out it had no business to get involved in the first place.
“Why did the Defence Secretary get involved here? The matter didn’t’ involve him nor the Defence Ministry. It was a matter for the BOI and CEA. The involvement of people who had no business to be involved only complicated the issue,” he said.
Meanwhile the BOI said it had already launched investigations into the matter. Media Director of the BOI, D. Samarasinghe speaking to The Nation said the factory has been under the BOI for the past 14 years and no complaints had been made against it with regard to ground water pollution. “We conduct periodical inspection on the environmental impacts, which is an ongoing process. We are looking into this particular issue as well,” he said.- The Nation