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Chemical leak causes panic in Piliyandala

25 October 2013 04:29 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


“It was about 2.45 a.m. when I stepped out of the house hoping to reason with my neighbours whom I thought were making a racket... but the minute I stepped outside, it felt so alien; I could not see anything around me, everything was covered in thick, white fog that smelt foul.

Seconds later, I heard some of the neighbours yelling at the top of their voices, asking me to bring my son outside and that we were in danger,” Lalani Kathriarachchi said as she recounted the events that occurred on Monday night following an alleged accidental chemical leak (liquid Ammonia) at a cleaning and detergent agent production factory in Batakeththara – a small village located a few kilometres away from the Piliyandala town. According to Lalani and several other villagers of Batakeththara, over 40 households were affected by the Ammonia leak that occurred on Monday night. According to Piliyandala Hospital sources, by Tuesday afternoon close to 32 patients from Batakeththara had hospitalized themselves complaining of similar symptoms which included dizziness and respiratory difficulties triggered by the leak.

After consultation and treatment at the hospital, most villagers as well as Lalani had returned home on Tuesday morning to discover that even the village and their homes had undergone drastic impacts overnight due to the chemical leak.

‘Primary responsibility is with local government bodies’ – Senior environmental lawyer

Senior environmental lawyer and environmental activist Jagath Gunawardena said the shortcomings in the monitoring process of the environmental impact of industrial plants should not be heaved on the CEA alone.

“It is not to say that I am satisfied with the activities carried out by the CEA. However, most of the industrial plants/chemical factories fall under the purview of the Western Province CEA unit and one of their main limitations is being understaffed among other resource constraints. It is also the duty of the local government bodies such as the District Councils to look into the wellbeing of the people in their areas and their health,” Mr. Gunawardena said.   

He also added that the present regulations and provisions with concern to protecting the environment from adverse impacts of industrial/chemical plants such as the National Environment Act and even sections of the District Councils Act were sufficient, but added the issue arose with concern to observance and enforcement.

Carrying her son who was resting his head on her shoulder, Lalani pointed at the grass and plants along the little cobbled path that led to her house. It was as if a plague had hit the village; the plants were withered and yellow as if exposed to a strong pesticide . . . several swollen, dead frogs lay scattered along the roadsides. The chemical leak also seemed to have left strong residues inside homes - sudden white spots had appeared all over the polished floors and even on walls overnight. “If this is the effect the chemical had on the plants and animals just imagine how it must have been on a child. My son has been complaining of headache since this morning... his feet are feeble and he can’t walk properly since last night. I have to take him to hospital now once more,” she said as she clutched the little boy.

Not the first time!
Owing to all the indicators, Lalani said  it did not take them long to figure out the link between the strange phenomenon of thick, white, foul-smelling fog and the chemical factory located close to their houses. “We instantly made the connection because this is not the first instance that the village has been affected by the low-standard chemical disposal processes of the factory. In fact, for the past 18 years this village has been experiencing an unprecedented environmental damage due to the operations of the factory, and the villagers’ lives including ours have been in grave danger,” she added irately.

According to Lalani as well as her neighbour Ranjith Kandage who joined our conversation, since the inception of the factory in the village, the environment had changed for the worse. “There are close to 10 wells in the area, which are used by the villagers to obtain drinking water - people in and around these areas never pay for their water or use the water from the pipes. Today, none of these wells are in use as all the water had turned foul and people get a burning sensation around the chest when they consume it. The common well in the village is deserted now because people no longer bathe in its waters as it causes skin irritations,” they said.
They claim to this day, whenever it rains the little canals on the roadsides overflow with a foamy, white substance. “Instead of treating the chemical contaminated water the operators of the factory release it into a paddy field in the Kahatawela area located close by. Or, when it rains the chemical infused water pipes are simply turned into the roadside canals which results in the toxic water being absorbed into the soil and water sources,” explained another aggrieved villager, Karunaratne, who added that as a result most paddy fields nearby were no longer cultivatable. He even believes that the four cancer-related deaths that occurred within the last year in the village were directly linked to the erratic chemical waste disposal processes of the factory.  

Authorities inactive - Villagers

Villagers’ allegations are baseless – S&D Associates

The industrial plant in question – S&D Associates, which produced cleaning and detergent agents mainly for the export market, however dismissed all allegations made by the villagers and claimed they had adhered to the environmental regulations set by the CEA. “We are operating under a legally obtained CEA licence, which means that we adhere to all the waste disposal practices that we are required to follow. We are equipped with a fully fledged water treatment system and even our solid waste is disposed accordingly,” says factory owner Dayantha de Silva.

“I was at the factory during the time of the incident. It was an accidental liquid ammonia spill and instantly, we took immediate steps to control the leak, which took us about 45 minutes. About 20 of my staff were present in the factory with me during the time, but we have been feeling fine since then. None of us have visited the hospital. We haven’t exhibited any of the symptoms which the villagers complain of,” he said while also adding it was for the first time that an incident of this nature had occurred.

The villagers claim the environment pollution was in fact so adverse that in 2009, they sought legal assistance and filed a case in courts against the factory’s waste disposing malpractices. However, their efforts had turned futile.

“The seriousness of the pollution was largely highlighted following the issues that sprang up with concern to consuming well water. When we order tests at the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), on the well water in the area, the reports clearly state that the water in wells within a 500m radius from the factory are not fit for consumption. But the facts of the reports alter when they are redone for the court cases. Adding insult to injury, the villagers themselves turn on each other as most of them are silenced with heavy financial rewards by the factory owners. Eventually, for the final few hearings it was only a handful of people who attended on behalf of the complainants, including Lalani here, who was heavily pregnant at the time...” Ranjith recalled.

Although they had been advised to re-file their cases when their initial efforts did not succeed, the villagers had not proceeded due to financial constraints. “Those days, the lawyer’s charges alone were Rs. 5000 per session and we were in no position to afford the legal fee ... So we gave up…”

According to these aggrieved villagers, the factory was constantly safeguarded by the authorities responsible of exposing them, although it allegedly carried out gross malpractices with concern to waste disposal processes. “They have silenced and bought over every single party that stood against them with the power of their money. Even the Central Environmental Authority was turning a blind eye to the malpractices and they would continue to do so until this entire village gets swept off,” Ranjith said, irately.

This was not the first instance where issues had sprung up concerning gross malpractices in factory waste disposal systems, which had implicated the lives and environs of its vicinity. It was an issue of similar origin that recently led to the atrocious bloodshed in Rathupaswala, where people took the law into their hands owing to the authorities’ inaction. It was unfortunate that even with relevant national mechanisms and establishments in place to probe and repetitively monitor the environmental impacts and observance of regulations, people’s lives were still at stake due to non-adherence to environmental regulations.  

Pix by Nisal Baduge

‘Observance of regulations will be strictly enforced’ - CEA

“We initiated immediate investigations into the accident in order to probe into the causes that led to the leak, the measures that were taken by the factory operators to suppress it as well as measures that can be taken in the future to prevent such accidents from recurring,” CEA Chairman Wimal Rubasinghe said speaking to the Daily Mirror.

Mr. Rubasinghe added that investigations were scheduled to continue for the next two weeks and depending on the outcome of the investigations, they would make a decision on whether or not to lift the suspension on the licence issued to the factory.

Commenting on the allegations made by the villagers concerning the inaction of authorities, Mr. Rubasinghe however said they were not aware of the inconveniences faced by the villagers. “The villagers have made no such complaints about the factory during my tenure so far. However, if they make any complaints, I can guarantee that I would shed full attention on the matter,” he added.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rubasinghe also said that following the recent incidents in Rathupaswala and Piliyandala, they have decided to pay special attention on quality-checking procedures concerning the adherence of environmental regulations. “At present, we only carry out quality-checks during the annual renewing of the licence or if there are any complaints against the establishment. But we are considering the possibility of increasing the frequency of these quality-checks,” he added.   


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