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Plant machinery, pipe-borne drinking water affected; voting as well

At around 6 a.m. on elections day the operations officer at the Ambatale water treatment plant noticed a patch of oil floating in the Kelani River. As this was an occasional occurrence he let it pass. However as the oil had continued to flow even after a lapse of 30 minutes, immediate measures were taken to shut down the plant and stop pump water from the river. 

Amidst rumours of suspected sabotage the Coca Cola Company at Biyagama has taken responsibility for the leak and to pay compensation for the damages caused.

However according to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the Environmental Protection License (EPL) of the multi-national beverage company has been temporarily suspended and measures were being taken to assess the damages. The CEA said that damage costs are being calculated and they are expecting estimates from the Water Board, MEPA and National Aquatics Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) by next week.

The oil that had accidentally been pumped into the Ambatale plant had blocked the nozzles and filters in the plant machinery, and reached the reservoirs and sedimentation tanks. Speaking to the , Water Board Director General Ranjith Perera said that both reservoirs had to be skimmed,  sedimentation tanks flushed out, nozzles and filters replaced and all equipment cleaned prior to resuming operations. 


Reservoirs being cleaned after the leak

“For 9 hours we did not take in water for distribution. It was only when we noticed that the water had cleared that we started working the pumps. According to SLF 614 standards for pure drinking water there is a permitted amount of very low level of tainting. We started releasing the water when this level was attained. Usually drinking water has a zero percentage of oil. Many would have noticed a difference in taste and smell because of this,” Perera also said that the results of the contaminated water samples sent to India for testing were expected soon. 

Prasad Pushpakumar and P.A. Shriyani of Ambatale were surprised when they tasted oil in their drinking water. They said, “We knew about this only when we watched the news at night. We did not use tap water for drinking because of the unusual taste. It was restored in a day but as we were fearful of it being contaminated we did not use water for three days and used water from a nearby well for drinking.”  Shriyani also added that a few people who were inconvenienced by this were unable to go cast their vote. 

Meanwhile D.K. Bandara a construction worker at Ambathale said that they were not affected on election day as the oil pollution was controlled. However he said that oil droplets remained in the water for a day or two. 


Floating patches of oil near the pumping station

 The Ambatale water plant operations manager R.P.P. R. Rajapakse said they were able to find the reason for the leak by tracing the oil flow to its point of origin along the river. IT WAS found that the Coca Cola Company that was 4 kilometres away at Biyagama was responsible for the leak. 

Upon inspections it was found that oil had leaked from a ruptured  underground pipeline that was connected to the storm water drains that  flow into the river.  
The water supply to many of the distribution points of the Ambatale Plant was disrupted including Colombo, Dehiwela, Mount Lavinia, Maharagama, Battaramulla and Kolonnawa areas. 

Adding that there were 450,000 connections in Colombo alone, Perera said that the Water Board received many complaints from residents in Dehiwela of contaminated water while residents along the river side had complained to the MEPA of irritation in the eyes while bathing. 

 


Leak checked
-Sarath Kumar,Disaster Management Centre
 The contamination in the river was brought under control on the day of the leak. We issued a warning asking people not to use river water for bathing, drinking or washing purposes.  In 6 to 8 hours the contaminated water flowed into the sea and the river water was safe. We have not taken a count of how many people were affected by this as the situation was brought under control in a few hours.

 


EPL suspended
-Professor Lal Dharmasiri, Chairman Central Environmental Authority (CEA)
We have temporarily suspended the EPL of Coca Cola until they provide us with an environmental protection plan with details of measures to reduce environmental impact during the event of a disaster. In addition we have provided them with guidelines on how to treat waste water and bring it under control. We have also collected samples of the contaminated water for testing. 

 


Oil spill
- Asanka Wijewarnasooriya
 Officer Western Province Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA)

 Around 2 tonnes of diesel oil had escaped during the leak.  As diesel is a highly volatile substance it evaporated pretty fast and we have reason to believe that only a few residual particles remained. Oil absorbents were used to clean the water and take away the oil. 

 


Accidental?
- Hemantha Vithanage 
Centre for Environmental Justice

 It is hard to assess the magnitude of the damage caused to the environment as no investigations were done. When the contaminated water goes into the sea it is the duty of the MEPA to take necessary action. The usual process is to add certain chemicals to collect the contaminated water.  If not treated it may also affect coral reefs. Following this accident there are discussions regarding the prohibition of  underground pipelines. According to sources it was an accidental leak, but there is some suspicion as to why it happened on the day of the general election. Also on election day, a businessman cut down a mangrove forest to establish a salt pond in Mangala Eliya which is close to Puttalam. 


 


Similar incident of 2014
 -Dr. P.B. Terney Pradeep Kumara
 General Manager Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA)

 We helped the CEA mitigate the issue by confining the oil to one area and removing it. It may have had an impact on water quality and marine life but we can’t say for sure till test results are out. A similar incident took place in 2014 when oil was deliberately dumped into the Kalu Ganga by a big company. This was recovered as they were traced and made to pay for the damages caused.
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