Controversy surrounds how approvals have been granted to a lead smelting factory in Bingiriya by the North Western Provincial Environment Authority bypassing the National Environment Act. North Western Provincial Environment Authority (NWPEA) has come under severe criticism for granting Environment Protection License (which is given to confirm that any hazardous emission isn’t discharged to the environment) to Nico Battery Manufacturers situated at Vihara Mawatha, Panawewa, Bingiriya. The battery manufacturing company has possessed this licence since 2005.
According to Bingiriya Medical Officer of Health (MOH), Dr. Narada Ranasinghe the emissions from the kiln that smelts lead is extremely hazardous not only to humans, but also to animals. Although Dr. Ranasinghe had made a request, by letter dated July 31, 2013, to the Director NWPEA not to extend the licences given to the lead smelting battery manufacturers until an impartial emission test is conducted, the request had been ignored. However the authority had continuously extended the licence to this company.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Dr. Ranasinghe said how disappointed it is for the NWPEA to issue licences to Nico when he as the MOH had made a request not to extend the licence given to this factory which brings a health hazard. He said that his requests had fallen on deaf ears.
“It’s up to the respective Pradeshiya Sabhawa (Local Council) to take action against any factory that causes damage to the environment. But it isn’t happening in this instance. There were few cases filed by the police against this factory and I too was asked to give evidence, but we weren’t given any opportunity to tell the courts how detrimental it is to have such a factory that releases lead particles to the environment. Meanwhile the CEA and the NWPEA were arguing with each other in court to show what the approved agency is that issues licences for the factories. Failing to make a statement in court, I once requested the Bingiriya Divisional Secretary to appoint a national committee regarding this issue as Nico Battery Manufacturers are going to cause adverse health conditions in residents in the area. Initially the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) in one of its reports said that there is lead in the soil and in the emission. But now they are claiming that the industry is following all the safety measures and the soil isn’t contaminated with lead or Sulfuric Acid and nor does the kiln release lead particles. The Government should appoint an independent committee comprising environmentalists, produce a report regarding this industry and take a final decision,” Dr. Ranasinghe said.
Dr. Aloy Gunaratne of Medical Centre Bingiriya too shared the same views that of the MOH. Dr. Gunaratne revealed how the people in the area are suffering from Bronchiole Asthma. “The number of patients that take treatment for asthma is increasing. I suspect this is due to the inhalation of tiny lead particles floating in the air. Even I was told that the odor during the smelting process too is unbearable and causes breathing problems. If this factory is allowed to continue the future generation will suffer from brain damages or even nerve breakdowns. Why are the authorities concerned allowing such detrimental factories to operate in residential areas?” Dr. Gunaratne queried.
Former OIC Bingiriya Chief Inspector R.M.P. Ratnayake said how the police once took a tipper into custody which was trying to unload waste contaminated with lead and sulfuric acid which are extreme health hazards. “All attempts made by the police to take legal action against this factory have failed as the complainants are given money. There were two or three occasions when we had to withdraw the cases because the complainants refused to appear in court,” Ratnayake added.
A haven for hazardous industries
Meanwhile Director Presidential Task Force on Environmental Conservation, Upali Indrasiri told the Daily Mirror how President Maithripala Sirisena as the Environment Minister accused the NWPEA for granting approval for hazardous industries in the North Western Province without considering the adverse impact to the environment.
It is learned that the North Western Province has become a haven for all hazardous industries that don’t receive approval from other provinces. This is because the North Western Provincial Environmental Authority (NWPEA) is acting as a savior to all of industries, alleged to be functioning for personal gains.
When Environment Minister, President Sirisena himself, is making a painstaking effort to protect the environment, the illegal procedure followed by the NWPEA, violating National Environmental Act No: 47 of 1980 (amended), is making environmentalists concerned as to why Environmental Protection Licences (EPL) are issued to factories that dispose hazardous waste. By doing so these factories are not only polluting the environment, but also causing severe health problems to the residents in the vicinity.
According to Indrasiri, President Sirisena, in his capacity as the Environment Minister, on August 30, 2016, had a meeting with the high ranked officials of the Environment Ministry, Central Environment Authority (CEA), North Western Provincial Council members and officials of the NWPEA to discuss about the complaints he had received against the NWPEA. This is regarding the issuing of licences to factories that aren’t environmental friendly. “The president accused the NWPEA of not taking action against the factories in the province that have violated the environment laws of the country. He blamed Saman Senanayake, the then Director NWPEA, for his alleged involvement in supporting factories that destruct the environment.
He also blamed the Chief Minister who is the Provincial Environment Minister and the Chief Secretary for allowing an official – Saman Senanayake- to remain as the Director during the past 25 years.
Meanwhile Assistant Director CEA, D.M.K.Dissanayake, when contacted by the Daily Mirror, said that he had informed the President as to how Senanayake was illegally issuing licences to the industries that can’t be granted permission to operate.
“The President had received many complaints against the NWPEA in general and Saman Senanayake in particular. That was why this meeting was held on August 31, 2016. When the President informed about the complaints, as the then Assistant Director CEA Kurunegala, I told him how this officer was issuing licences to industries that had been rejected by other provinces. The President then instructed the Chief Minister to remove Senanayke from the post immediately as he doesn’t wish to see an environment polluted country, something which had never happened till September 2017. He also instructed us to ensure that there is no adverse impact to the environment from any of the factories in the country. The President queried as to why Senanayake has been allowed to continue in the same post for more than 25 years despite the allegations levelled against him for issuing licences for personal gains in return for favours granted to him (Senanayake) by the industrialists,” Dissanayake said.
Adverse health conditions reported from Bingiriya in Chilaw due to lead contamination, once again point the finger at Senanayake for granting approval to a factory that manufactures lead slabs for the foreign market.
Approvals given to Nico Battery Manufacturers Ltd, by Senanayake despite of the CEA’s continued objection since early 2005, have caused severe health conditions in the residents in and around Bingiriya.
Having started to manufacture batteries in 1992, the company had then switched to smelt the lead obtained from old batteries and manufacture lead slabs. These slabs are exported to India, according to Nico Batteries Chairman Sampath Guneratne.
According to Dissanayake the lead which is obtained from used batteries are smelt in kilns where small particles are discharged to the air, during the smelting process. As a result, the particles are deposited everywhere within a radius of more than 5km. Once the lead contaminated food or water is consumed this hazardous metal enters the bloodstream which causes diseases that can’t be treated. “The air has become contaminated with lead particles and according to the Medical Officer of Health Bingiriya, the number of patients suffering from breathing difficulties has increased over the years,” Dissanayake claimed.
Dissanayake further revealed how the CEA issued the licences to this company when they were manufacturing batteries, but stopped once the hazardous lead smelting process started. “After the NWPEA took over the licence issuing process, claiming they are the legal authority to issue licences for the North Western Province, and despite objections from CEA, Senanayake issued the environmental recommendation, the EPL licences and the Scheduled Waste Management licence to Nico Battery Manufacturers,” Dissanayake said.
Meanwhile it’s learned how Senanayake, who had issued the licences to Nico, to continue in their environmental hazardous industry, filed a case against the same company. Senanayake’s complaint was against environment pollution and he later got a ruling from the Hettipola Magistrate Court to close down the factory. “Realizing that the Bingiriya Police, following complaints lodged by the residents in the area, was to file a case against Senanayake for issuing the licences without the approval of the CEA (which is the authorized government institution to issue the licences) Senanayahe went to courts and obtained an order to close the factory. After a few months, Senanayake got one of the industrial institutes that issues chemical and micro biological reports to give a report in favour of Nico and got the court approval to re-open the factory,” revealed Dissanayake.
Dissanayake added as to how Nico Battery has dumped the lead slag in many places in Chilaw. This company, during a case, had informed the court that the slag was being exported to China.
“The documents clearly state how Nico Battery Chairman told court that the slag is being exported. When we asked him to produce the customs documents that show the slag had been exported, he failed to produce any document,” Dissanayake added.
Meanwhile, Convener, Bingiriya Environment Protection Organization, Manjula Ranjith said how the case filed by the Bingiriya Police had to be withdrawn later. This was after the complainants refused to appear in court. “Most of the complainants had been paid and due to lack of petitioners, the police informed the court that they can’t proceed further and withdrew the case. After a few years the police once again filed a case against Nico and there again the police had to withdraw the case as most of the complainants were given money once again. The majority of residents in the area are extremely poor and when money is given, they can be brought over easily,” Ranjith said. However, the Daily Mirror is in possession of a copy of the EPL issued to Nico Battery Manufacturers by Director NWPEA Saman Senanayake leaving a blank space for the date for the Manufacturer to fill it when necessary.
“If Senanayake could issue the EPL for the smelting of lead scrap why couldn’t he type the date like the way he had typed the text? This isn’t the only instance he had issued licences keeping blank spaces for the industrialists to fill in the dates according to their wishes,” Ranjith alleged.
Ranjith, a former member of the Bingiriya Pradeshiya Sabhawa, further said that this factory hadn’t obtained approval for the building, before the constructions took place, nor the trade licence for the current year. When contacted Pradeshiya Sabha Bingiriya Secretary W.M.D.R. Wickremasinghe to find out whether Nico Battery had obtained the building approvals, he said that he wasn’t aware and added that he needed to have to check the files.
“This area was submerged a few years ago and most of our files were washed away. I must see whether the particular file still exists before making any comment,” responded Wickremasinghe.
According to Wickremesinghe, the local authority can’t take any action against the industry in question unless the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) states that this factory releases hazardous lead particles.
Paying with their health
Those who spoke to the Daily Mirror on terms of anonymity revealed how the doctors warned them not to have babies as the children run the risk if being born with brain damage.
“We were also told that due to the high lead levels in our bodies, our kidneys are more prone to malfunction in the years to come. The doctors also said that we would lose body strength. We can’t talk openly against this company as they are supporting us financially in order to keep us silent. But knowing the fact that this factory is putting the peoples life in great danger, we can’t remain silent,” one of the sources revealed.
These sources further said how they were asked to split the old batteries with small axes. This makes the battery acid (Sulfuric Acid) run all over. “This acid had made one of our former employees totally blind, but the management didn’t compensate her although she requested for money to get herself treated. It’s the same with the lead as well. We had to remove the lead from our fingers. Since we weren’t provided with any gloves, we had to separate the lead using bear fingers. As we weren’t aware of the fact that lead is so poisonous, none of the employees took any precaution. Most of the time we had our meals using lead contaminated fingers. According to the doctors who treated us at Ratnam Hospital Colombo, the lead had entered our bodies due to our ignorance,” the sources claimed.
Twenty-five-year-old Dinusha, a resident in Bingiriya, said how he underwent treatment at Ratnam Hospital after the medical reports revealed the lead content in his body had a reading of 72%. “I joined Nico Battery in 2012 and removed the lead from used batteries.
Although the management now claims that we were provided with safety gear, they never offered them. If they provided us with safety gear we would have worn them. However after one year, we were taken for a medical checkup and the reports conformed that there was 72% led in my body. About six of us were taken to Ratnam Hospital in Colombo given medication. Once in a fortnight we were taken to Colombo. I have a severe pain in the body and the doctors say that it is due to the presence of high lead levels. Recently a doctor from the National Hospital in Colombo visited this area and spoke to the people who had worked at this factory. I told him what was in the report. Since the reports weren’t given to us by our employer, the doctor said that if there is 72% lead in the body it will not only effect my body. But if I get married and have children, from birth these children will either be deformed or be born with brain damages. I am now engaged and don’t know what to do,” said Dinusha. He further revealed as to how he wanted the management to pay for his treatment obtained from private doctors to which the company had paid Rs.2 lakhs, on three occasions.
“Sampath Sir gave me Rs.1 lakh and then Rs.50, 000 each on two occasions. Since the doctors are asking me to bring my medical reports that state the lead level in the body, I requested the management to hand over the reports, but all these pleas had fallen on deaf ears. I lodged a complaint with the Bingiriya Police on October 21, 2017. The factory Supervisor was present at the inquiry and when the police wanted him to submit my medical reports, the Supervisor wanted me to withdraw the complaint. Although I withdrew the case and went to the office to obtain the report I was told that my report wasn’t with them. Now they are claiming that I haven’t worked for them. Since I was on contract I wasn’t issued with appointment letter, hence I can’t prove my claim,” Dinusha said.
R.M. Lamaethana too is now suffering from multiple diseases and she too had been deprived of her medical reports.“I too worked for this factory for more than three years. I have gone partially blind now. The doctors say that Sulfuric acid had entered my eyes. Although I underwent two eye operations my right eye has gone totally blind and the vision in my left eye is fast deteriorating. I too lodged a complaint to obtain my medical reports. I was asked to withdraw the complaint which I did, but the reports weren’t released to me and I was chased away from the office,” Lamaethana said.
- Former Director NWPEA, Saman Senanayake
When contacted Saman Senanayake said that he cannot make any comment as he is not in service now.
“I am now on retirement and it is not proper to make any official comment. Please talk to the present Director for any comment,” Senanayake said.
-Nico Battery Chairman
Refuting allegations Nico Battery Chairman Sampath Guneratne said that they got the employees tested for lead levels in the body not because they showed any symptoms, but as a responsible employer.
“Not only the employees in the factory have lead in their bodies, but everyone of us has a certain level of lead. We check the employees regularly and three years ago found around six of them with high lead levels. If we have more than 40 mg per DeccaLiter, we have to give the Heavy Metal Killation Therapy to bring down the lead level. We have to look after our employees. It’s the fault of the employees not to wear the safety gear that was provided by the company. It is a must for all my employees to undergo the medical checkup as I am so concern about their well-being. We are willing to get the medical reports of the employees, who are now accusing us, checked if they make a request,” said Guneratne.
When asked as to why the medical reports are not given to the former employees, Guneratne said that they aren’t employed by them now. “When we gave the reports to them they were returned to us. That was why we disposed them,” he added.
Everyone of us has a certain level of lead. We check the employees regularly and three years ago found around six of them with high lead levels. If we have more than 40 mg per DeccaLiter, we have to give the Heavy Metal Killation Therapy to bring down the lead level. We have to look after our employees. It’s the fault of the employees not to wear the safety gear that was provided by the company
However, Guneratne said that he hasn’t operated his business without obtaining approval. he claimed that the move behind the protest against him to close down the factory has been orchestrated by a minister in the Government. “This minister’s brother too is in the same business and they want to close down our factory,” Guneratne alleged.
According to Guneratne the ITI reports that are obtained once in six months over the years haven’t revealed that the chimney releases lead particles nor that the people have fallen sick after inhaling polluted air. The NWPEA gave us the environment recommendation in 1991 and we got the EPL in 1991.
Although Guneratne said that the lead slag was earlier exported to China and it is now stored within the premises. They are making this claim as they cannot dispose it in Sri Lanka. When requested to show the slag exportation documents, Guneratne failed to produce the customs documents.
- Jagath Gunawardena
Attorney at law specialized in Environment laws Jagath Gunawardena said although NWPEA tries to portrait itself as the sole legal authority to issue licenses, the misinterpretation of the constitution by the NWPEA has caused damages to the environment.
“Some people can manipulate the system when there is disagreement between different Government bodies. The NWPEA always tries to portrait them as the sole legal authority on matters such as pollution controlling. The NWPEA has failed to discharge the duty as seen by this particular instance too. There is no point in gathering and asserting powers if they are unable and unwilling or under pressure to exercise such powers
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