Despite EIA report and protests: Govt ploughs through Aruwakkalu landfill project | Sunday Observer

Despite EIA report and protests: Govt ploughs through Aruwakkalu landfill project

‘We need development, not garbage’, read a placard held by one of the young demonstrators at the demonstration against the upcoming Aruwakkalu Sanitary Landfill project in Wanathavilluwa, Puttalam, this week.

Today marks the 23rd day of the 100-day resistance launched by the Clean Puttalam campaign led by the area’s District Inter-Religious Committee at ‘Colombo Face’ in Puttalam. Religious leaders, political actors, NGOs, youth groups, women’s associations,and members of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka–(Puttalam branch), were among the thousands all calling for a single demand - an immediate halt to this project.

Garbage- 1200 tons of it - collected in the Colombo Metro Region daily, is scheduled to be transported in train carriages to the landfill after being compressed at a transfer station in Kelaniya, adjoining the main railway line and the Kandy- Colombo highway. The Sunday Observer learns that since the train will not go into operation for several months, the Ministry is planning, in the meantime, to transport the garbage in tipper trucks instead. The garbage will fill the large pits left by limestone excavation for cement production in the area.

The Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management Project’s Environment Impact Assessment Report, which was published in August 2017, recommends a traffic management plan and road improvements to avoid traffic congestion. ‘Two trains are scheduled per day each carrying 600 tons of garbage. The distance is 170 kms. Railway track is available from the Kelaniya transfer site all the way up to Aruwakkalu,’ it states.

The estimated US$125 million landfill project was initiated by the former government when the garbage dump in Meethotamulla overfilled - later leading to a fatal explosion that left over 30 dead on the Sinhala and Tamil New Years day in 2017. Following the incident, authorities took measures to transport garbage to a site in Kerawalapitiya, Wattala. The present government expedited work at the Aruwakkalu Sanitary Landfill when the Kerawalapitiya site, in turn neared its capacity.

However, red flags went up since the very inception of the Aruwakkalu project. One was that the project was handed over to a World Bank blacklisted company (China Communications Construction Company (CHCC), which is the parent company of Chi­na Har­bour En­gi­neer­ing Co Ltd (CHEC), that is to undertake the work on the ill-fated landfill. It was blacklisted in 2009 until January 2011 under the World Bank’s fraud and corruption sanctioning policy. (CHEC is a subsidiary company of CHCC). In a recent turn of events early this year, the government of Bangladesh took measures to blacklist the same company for attempted bribery.

CHEC won the project over M/s Kolon-Hansol-KECC , a South Korean Joint Venture, prompting the latter to file an appeal to the Procurement Appeal Board stating that the Chinese company failed to meet mandatory criteria that make it eligible- CHEC lacked past experience in landfill design, which was considered crucial. Amidst much controversy, CHEC signed the agreement last December.

Almost a year on, residents of the area backed by environmentalists, politicians, lawyers and many other concerned groups, are launching massive demonstrations and protest marches. One of their key grouses is that the State launched this project, without any consultation with, or input from, the people of the area.

‘Ever since we first heard about the project in 2014 we started protesting against it,’ says Iflal Ameen, administrator of the Clean Puttalam campaign, and a resident of the area. They later discontinued their movement when the government appeared to discontinue the project, ‘But when they re-started the project in 2017, we rose again.’ he said. Last month (on September 10) a group of residents crashed into the construction site of the sanitary landfill and demanded its immediate termination whereaf ter politicians in the area facilitated a question and answer session with Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Patali Champika Ranawaka. But,“We got nothing from him that day. They had no proper vision. No long term management plan,” Ameen says. After speaking to experts and intellectuals on the subject, the group realised the Aruwakkalu Sanitary Landfill will lead to Puttalam’s doom and commenced their protest on September 29, which is now supported by thousands of people from several parts of the country.

People in Puttalam have already fallen prey to two other mega projects - the massive cement factory and Lakvijaya coal power plant in Norocholai, Puttalam. Thirty-five-year-old Ummul Khair, a mother of two and resident of the area, says that there are adverse effects from both the projects. “People in the area are falling sick because of the ash dust from the power plant and lime stone dust from the cement factory. We moved to Puttalam about four years ago and my son is now having serious dust allergies,’ she says adding, ‘Aren’t we going through enough? We don’t understand why they had decided to bring the garbage here.’

Khair who is a member of a group resisting the upcoming landfill, said it will pose inevitable threats to the environment.

A sustainable development and impact investment company MENÉ ASIA (PVT) LTD highlights inaccuracies in the Environment Impact Assessment Report (EIAR) of the project. It stated that the report ‘does not deal adequately with the negative impacts on residents from these villages’.

Accordingly, EIAR states ‘It is noted that there is no development located within two to three Kilometres downwind of the site’ but in the same report contradicts this statement by saying -“there are houses located around 300-400 m away from the landfill site and dust could reach these areas during the heavy windy season when the height of the landfill is increased.”

EIAR claims that the depression in the landfill site is the principal reason for considering this project, but MENÉ ASIA (PVT) LTD shows, “the landfill site has been completely rehabilitated by the cement company over the years. No significant depression(s) exist anymore following rehabilitation. Thus the particular suitability of the land for a landfill in its original form after mining does not exist anymore. Conversion to a landfill will destroy the reforested area”.

It further adds that any breach or leak will cause irreparable damage and have disastrous consequences on the ecology of the area.

“The negative impact of contamination of ground water sources, and the deep water and alluvial aquifers, cannot be quantified. Salt pans in the vicinity (Karaitivu South) will also be affected with the contamination caused by flying debris,” also, “Bar Reef and the delicate ecosystem in the Puttlam lagoon will all be threatened if leachate leaks into the lagoon. The negative effects may take years to be felt. It will however not be possible to limit the time frame of vulnerability of ground water contamination, which may take decades after closing the landfill as long as leachate generation continues due to seepage of surface water”.

In the light of these revelations and more, protester M. H. Mohammed from Puttalam is concerned about the future of his home town. “Still the government says that this project is harmless. Why don’t they then take the garbage to another area. Why not Gampaha where there is enough land,” he asked.

During a press briefing this week, Secretary to the Megapolis and Western Development Ministry Eng. Nihal Rupasinghe assured the public that there was no adverse environment impact from the project, and that the ministry will take full responsibility. He added that the State is purchasing a high-tech landfill compactor especially for the project, while a deodourization facility will significantly reduce the bad odours emitted from the site.

On Thursday (18th October ), Minister Ranawaka addressing a gathering of the Sri Lankan community at the Sri Lankan High Commission in the UK said they hope to solve the dire solid waste issue in the country by mid next year, by introducing collection techniques, incineration of garbage and sanitary landfills.Hemantha Withanage, director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, asked ‘why take so much of garbage such a long distance?’. “It is a costly affair. The Railway Department is paid Rs. 975 for 1 km for one carriage. Then 27 carriages going a distance of 170 km will cost Rs. 4.2 million a day. That is Rs. 1,500 million a year,” he said.

He said waste is really money and if the country has a strategic plan no component in the country’s garbage will be wasted. But, he said, the country lacked scientific waste management process, and mandatory regulations to segregate at source and recycle.

The new landfill in Puttalam, he said, is close to Wilpattu National Park and underneath is the Thabbowa Freshwater Aquifer- the largest in the country. This area is high in biodiversity. “If toxic waste seeps through the cracks in the landfill to the aquifer it will cause irreversible damage,” he said. He claimed that the issue is causing social problems, and this matter should not end in the death of anyone, as has happened in the past.

“In my opinion this garbage problem could have been settled overnight. Puttalam is a sensitive area.There is no sustainable solution here,” says attorney and activist, of the of the Movement Against the Meethotamulla Garbage Dump, Nuwan Bopage. The Sunday Observer learns that the authorities plan to transport garbage to Aruwakkalu, as early as November.

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