Will cries for justice be heard in TOXIC GAS TRAGEDY ?

26 April 2018 10:08 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Scribbles of Lal Pushpakumara’s toddler were seen on the unplastered walls of his half-built two-storey house. The residence was being arranged for Pushpakumara’s funeral at the time we visited. His wife Chandrika Damayanthi (39) is still struggling to come to terms with the shocking news. Pushpakumara (41), a carpenter by profession, was one of the five people who lost their lives in the toxic gas tragedy in Bellapitiya, Horana on
April 19.

“Nobody from the factory came to help them. Villagers including my husband stepped in to rescue the two workers who were in trouble. I lost my husband. My four kids lost their beloved father,” Chandrika lamented.

Pushpakumara and Chandrika were passing S & C Latex Limited on Kalawellawa Road, Bellapitiya, Horana around 1.20 pm on April 19 when they spotted two women screaming for help from passersby. By then, two workers attached to the latex factory had fallen into a chemical effluent treatment plant which contained liquid Ammonia (NH3), and suspected Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and Methane (CH4). Pushpakumara, who stopped his motorcycle, rushed to the scene to help those who were in trouble.

Chandrika was watching in anxiety from outside the latex factory when she heard about the death of her husband. “People screamed that my husband who tried to rescue the workers also fell into the tank after being overcome by gas fumes. I couldn’t believe it. He went to help others. He didn’t even know anyone in the factory,” Chandrika told the .

She is now bringing up four children alone. Chandrika fears that the latex factory, which was temporarily suspended by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) following the multiple deaths, would be allowed to escape unscathed, and would reopen soon.

On the day of the accident, the factory had commenced operating after New Year holidays. W. Ariyapala (40), a worker had been fixing a valve in chemical effluent treatment plant when he fell in after being overcome by the toxic gas. Later, the factory’s Lab Assistant twenty-three-year-old Waruna Chandrasekara, who had tried to rescue Ariyapala, also perished.

Within minutes four villagers descended into the tank to rescue others. Of the four, only one individual named Janaka Dinesh (26) managed to survive, while the three others Pushpakumara, Dileepa Kasun Lokupathirage (34) and Priyantha Kumara (43) had to breathe their last, despite channeling their time and energies to save a human life. More than 10 others were admitted to the Horana hospital after being overcome by toxic fumes.

Janaka Dinesh is a mechanic in a service centre located next to the latex factory. He recounted his experience during the toxic gas mishap.

“The liquid in the tank was only knee-deep. I descended down the tank using a ladder and pulled one person out, but he died later. Along with me, there was another person (Lal Pushpakumara) who was trying to rescue workers. Suddenly, he too fell into the tank. His fall into the tank resulted in more fumes. In a wink of an eye, the surrounding turned blue. I remember taking a deep breath and trying to climb up the ladder. When I regained consciousness, I was in hospital,” Janaka reminisced.

The deaths have brought the working conditions in factories across the country under the spotlight. However, this accident is not the first of its kind to happen at the S & C latex factory. But, the factory either ignored or was allowed to circumvent many of the safety procedures.

Safety concerns

The late Chandrasekara’s grieving mother Renuka Damayanthi said that a female worker had fallen into the same chemical effluent tank several months ago. Chandrasekara had been able to save that woman’s life.

Following this accident, his parents had pleaded him to resign from the job due to safety concerns.

Both his parents are managers at private banks. Renuka said that at first she didn’t want Chandrasekara to work at this local factory since they didn’t have any financial difficulties. Chandrasekara, who was so passionate about Chemistry, had anyway continued working at the factory despite objections by his parents.
“I looked after my son like the apple of my eye. I always taught him to show loyalty and be honest with his place of employment. He was so helpful to others. But, nobody from the factory even made a call following his death. So far, nobody from the factory has come to the funeral,” she said. She demanded that such factories must establish safety measures which can be put to use during an emergency to prevent any unfortunate deaths of workers.

Not only Chandrasekara’s mother Renuka and Lal’s wife Chandrika, but also relatives of the other three people are still grieving. Brother, son, husband or father – all losses are significant.

The fates of Dileepa Kasun Lokupathirage’s and Priyantha Kumara’s are similar to that of Pushpakumara; all of them who invited trouble into their lives because they went to help others.

Request to cancel license

Meanwhile, Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya made a visit to Lokupathirage’s funereal house and met his family members on April 20. While leaving the funeral house, he told the , that he had requested the CEA to close down the rubber factory and cancel its license.

“The license of the relevant latex factory was once revoked by the CEA. However, the factory officials later managed to get the license re-validated. I informed the Chairman of Central Environmental Authority Chandrarathna Pallegama. He was not aware of this incident until I told him. I made a request to cancel the license,” he said.

Immediately after this incident, the CEA took action to suspend the Environmental Protection License (EPL) of the S & C Latex Limited. Further, the Manager, identified as Ratnasiri Edirisinghe from Boralesgamuwa and the 42-year-old Senior Laboratory Controller from Dikhenapura were arrested and remanded till April 25, by the Horana Magistrate. They had been charged of negligence and the failure to take adequate safety precautions. Meanwhile, the Department of Labour had told the media that it had launched an investigation into the incident.

Tension prevailed outside the factory when the family members of deceased came to know about the accident. Kith and kin of the deceased staged a protest near the factory raising slogans against the management and Government demanding stringent action be taken against the errant latex factory which had failed to follow the safety measures.

According to the villagers, S & C Latex factory has not been following precautionary measures. “It is mandatory that the management should provide workers with face masks while cleaning chemical tanks. Five innocent people died due to their negligence. The Government should take serious action against the management,” demanded villagers.

The Bellapitiya area comes under the purview of Madurawala Pradeshiya Sabha (PS). These claims by the villagers’ were supported by Chairman of Madurawala PS, Pushpajith Samarawickrama.

“As an industry, employee safety is the top priority of all operators. Many operators take steps exceeding what is required to ensure they are providing a safe working environment. This particular factory has a history of such wrongdoings,” he told the .

In 2009, protests had been carried out by villagers led by PS Chairman Samarawickrama against the factory for releasing chemical waste into adjourning streams. As regulated in the Environmental Protection License, releasing of waste water into streams that provide water to paddy fields is illegal. A large number of paddy fields have been destroyed due to the chemical waste released from the latex factory. Drinking water in wells in Bellapitiya area had also been contaminated. Fish and a cow have died after drinking water from these contaminated streams.

Following the demonstrations, CEA on January 16, 2009 sent officials to inspect the operations of the factory under the guidance of  the then Director General Pasan Gunasena.

Violation of rules and regulations

The field report compiled by the CEA officials had revealed that the operations of the factory were violating rules and regulations of the EPL. Therefore, on January 28, 2009, the CEA suspended the EPL 00065(R2)F of S & C Latex Limited.

However, the factory owner Sarath Wijerathne, who is a former Major of the Sri Lanka Army, submitted an appeal to the Secretary of Ministry of Environment and got the cancellation of the license removed. On the day the accident took place he has been at the factory. Villagers said they had seen him escaping using his vehicle without even looking into what had happened. Wijerathne was asked to be present at the police station to record a statement. But, he has not yet reported to the police.

“Villagers, who protested against this factory, were threatened by Wijerathne. As he was a former Major of the Sri Lanka Army, people later dispersed,” PS Chairman Samarawickrama said.

Subsequently, Wijerathne filed a case at Horana District Court in 2009 against Madurawala PS Chairman and five officials at the CEA. He held the six respondents responsible for causing a loss of Rs. 108 million to the factory during its closure. The case is still being heard. Another case was filed by Wijerathne against journalists who had covered the public protests and the written content, which he claims was against his factory. However, villagers claimed that despite nine years had lapsed, chemical waste is still released into streams on rainy days. PS Chairman Samarawickrama raised a question as to on which basis the CEA had decided to give back the EPL to the factory which had failed to rectify its faults.

He also alleged that the owner of the factory had close connections with Environment Ministry bigwigs and that is how he got his factory’s license re-validated eventually.

Meanwhile, Senior Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane, speaking to the  said that the unfortunate deaths of five people were repercussions of wrong decisions taken by the former officials of the Ministry of Environment in re-validating the EPL of the latex factory.

“A former Secretary of the Environment Ministry had turned an administrative decision into a technical decision although he is technically not qualified to do so. In addition, it is an accepted principle in law that no fresh evidence can be submitted to an appeal. It has to go by the evidence that was available at the time of the initial decision. However in this particular case, a legal officer from the ministry had made a site inspection to the factory,” said, Gunawardane.

He underscored that the legal officer is not the competent officer to handle the technical inspections and provide a report. Therefore, this is again a substantially wrong action on the part of the ministry at the time, he stated.

“These kind of wrong decisions, based on incorrect activities and premises, make the authorities like the CEA to be tied down and unable to perform their duties. Although the relevant officials are no longer working at the ministry, these unfortunate deaths are repercussions of wrong decisions taken by them,” he said. A team from the Government Analyst’s Department visited the factory last Saturday (April 21). Speaking to the , Government Analyst A.Welianga said a special laboratory analysis will be carried out by the department based on the liquid and air samples collected from the factory premises.

“We are supposed to do a proper analysis. Until the analysis is completed, we cannot comment on the incident. Within the next two weeks, the analysis will be completed and the report will be handed over to the police,” he said.

Meanwhile, another villager named Pushpakumara, a disabled soldier of the Sri Lanka Army, narrated another story regarding the land on which the S & C Latex Limited is located. Pushpakumara is residing in Ranawiru Gammanaya, Gowinna, six kilometers from the latex factory.

  • A female worker had fallen into the same chemical effluent tank several months ago. Chandrasekara had been able to save that woman’s life
  • The deaths have brought the working conditions in factories across the country under the spotlight
  • Villagers claimed that despite nine years had lapsed, chemical waste is still released into streams on rainy days
  • This land where the S & C latex factory stands is the property which was officially and originally passed by the Sri Lanka Army to build Ranawiru Gammanaya

Ranawiru Gammanaya

“This land where the S & C latex factory stands is the property which was officially and originally passed by the Sri Lanka Army to build Ranawiru Gammanaya. The latex factory was supposed to be built on a bare land in Gowinna. That land in Gowinna is in a rocky area and obtaining water and electricity for the land was very difficult. Sarath Wijerathne, who was serving the Army by that time, somehow acquired this land for his factory. Ranawiru Gammanaya was later built on that difficult area in Gowinna. We had to face many difficulties in building a road to our houses. Those in the scheme are still having an issue with water. I think Wijerathne has had to suffer as a result of Dittadhamma Vedaniya Karmaya for what he had done to all disabled war heroes,” he said.

However, when inquired by the Madurawala PS Chairman, regarding this claim of the land, he said he was not aware of it.

World Day for Safety and Health at Work is to fall this Saturday (April 28). It is high time for government institutions and non-government organizations established for occupational safety and health to focus on the loopholes in their procedures, United Federation of Labour President Linus Jayathilake, said. He said the purview of the Department of Labour does not cover the small scale factories, fishermen and farmers even though they also contribute to the national production.

Ammonia, the colourless gas, which has a very distinct pungent odour, is used in industrial practice to preserve latex because ammonia prevents the growth of bacteria in latex. The rubber industry is a unique example of complex exposure of human beings to chemicals. This exposure is even considered as carcinogenic for humans by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“In this S & C latex factory in Horana, the worker W. Ariyapala was apparently not wearing approved breathing apparatus when working inside the ammonia tank. Since Lab Assistant Chandrasekara also fell into the chemical effluent tank, it poses a serious question on the irresponsible manner in which operations had been carried out within the factory. Studies conducted in developed countries, have shown an increased risk of leukemia, lymphomas, and cancers of the bladder, lung, larynx, stomach, liver, and skin among rubber industry workers. It is alarming to know that the other workers of the same latex factory and labourers working in such unsafe rubber factories across the country are exposed to a high health risk,” said Jayathilake.

He said that employers should conduct health check-ups for workers, twice a year.

He noted that a rescue act should only be performed by trained personnel using appropriate equipment and with the support of other rescuers. Only properly maintained and calibrated equipment should be used for these types of practices.

“Only certified workers wearing approved breathing apparatus should be allowed to enter a confined space. Whether using approved breathing apparatus or when a worker has to enter a confined space, the person responsible for the workplace shall ensure that any person entering or remaining in that confined space is wearing approved breathing apparatus with a suitable safety harness connected to a lifeline. The person using the breathing apparatus should have received appropriate training in the use of that particular type of equipment,” he said.

He said that it is the responsibility of the employer to make all workers familiarise with the emergency procedures and make them aware of the characteristics and hazards of the hazardous gases likely to be present in the operations.

“In this particular case, it is found that none of these measures had been adhered. Workers were not informed and responsible authorities at the factory had not taken any precautionary and emergency methods. If they had been in the scene and informed the villagers who came to help about the risk of being exposed to the gas, at least these unfortunate deaths of three villagers could have been prevented,” Jayathilake added.

Pix by Damith Wickaramasinghe

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