Archive for the ‘Pollution’ Category

Deadly garbage dumps pose elephantine problems ?

March 5, 2017

Agonising death: The elephant which died after suffering for more than a month after eating garbage at Manampitiya. Pic by Karunaratne Gamage

An elephant which had been regularly eating garbage at Manampitiya died last Saturday after suffering from a sickness for a month.

This well grown male, about 20 years of age, was part of a herd that fed on garbage from a dump at Manampitiya. It had fallen ill in the third week of January. A veterinary surgeon and a team of wildlife officers tried to flush out any non-digestive materials from its stomach. One even inserted a hand through its anus to manually pull anything that remained. At first they pulled out about 15 kilograms of polythene in a day and over a month about 30 kilograms were removed.

Dr Pramuditha Devasurendra who had treated the elephant, rejected the idea that the polythene was the cause of death. He said toxic bacteria in rotting food may have been the cause. “The garbage pit contains lots of lunch sheets with rotten food. Deadly bacteria can grow on the food. This is main reason for the death of the elephant.”

Dr Devasurendra revealed that a post-mortem did not find any polythene in the bowels of the dead elephant. Its liver and spleen were damaged.

He said he had treated another elephant about half a kilometre away from the garbage dump at Manampitiya. “That elephant too died and I have been unfortunate to witness deaths of at least 10 elephants since I assumed duties in this area four years ago,” Dr Devasurendra said.

The Manampitiya dump is not the only one that attracts elephants. A garbage dump in Dambulla attracts elephants. Yet another dump in Hambantota is protected by an electric fence. Dr. Devasurendra said an electric fence was needed at Manampitiya.

Meanwhile, Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, estimates that there are at least 50 locations where elephants come to forage at the dump. They are mostly in the dry zone.

Dr Fernando said piles of vegetables, over ripe fruit, flour, rice, bread and the like are more nutritious than what is found naturally. Elephants which rummage for these at the dumps are in better health, he said.

But he said every day 500 elephants may be eating garbage. “In a year, how many of them would die as a result? How does this compare with other ‘unnatural’ causes of elephant deaths? Such as being shot, hakka patas, injuries from trap guns and nooses, train or vehicle accidents, starving to death inside parks after being driven in and restricted with electric fences,” he asks.

It is mostly adult males living outside Wildlife Department protected areas that eat garbage.

The Manampitiya dump: Veritable death trap for wild animals. Pic by Kanchana Kumara

This also means the elephants are not raiding farms. So if they are to be prevented from raiding garbage dumps would it increase the human elephant conflict, and how many of them would be injured and killed? And how many people would be injured and killed? Dr Fernando asks.

“So before jumping in and trying to ‘fix’ something one should first find out what the problem is, figure out the cost and benefit of ‘fixing’ and make an informed decision. Otherwise the cure may be worse than the disease,” he warns.

Dr. Fernando suggests separating the organic matter from the plastics, metals, and glass materials before being dumped.

Published on SundayTimes on 05.03.2017 

Bye.. bye.. thinner polythene

February 16, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 07.02.2016

A man who supplies sili sili bags to shops in Pettah

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) will from next month systematically begin raiding the manufacturers and sellers that do not comply with the ban on polythene less than 20 microns in thickness.

“In January, we made some raids and those found guilty had been given chance to adjust to alternatives. But from February onwards, we will take legal action against those who do not comply,” a CEA spokesman warned.

The manufacture, sale or use of polythene less than 20 microns in thickness was banned from 2007 under the National Environment Act under the directive of President Maithripala Sirisena while he was the minister of environment but the law has until now not been properly implemented.

The thickness of polythene sheets is measured in microns – a unit resembling 0.001 millimeter. These thinner polythene sheets are mostly used in shopping bags or “sili sili bags”, lunch sheets and other packaging materials.

Any form of polythene or plastic takes hundreds of years to decay, polluting the environment, but thinner polythene is more evil as it cannot be recycled. Burning it causes the emission of poisonous gases such as dioxin, so such polythene ends up in garbage dumps.

Dumped bags clog the drainage system, creating floods. Animals such as cattle also feed on polythene bags found on rubbish heaps and become ill or die.

Easy to transport: A day’s shopping all in ‘Sili sili’ bags

The water collected in these disposed bags and wrappers can collect rainwater, making breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread diseases such as dengue. Polythene dumped in waterways finds its way into the ocean, choking and killing marine life.

According to a survey conducted by the Environment Ministry 72 per cent of villagers and 49 per cent of people in urban areas in the Western Province use polythene lunch sheets.

In total, about 500,000 metric tonnes of polythene and plastics are imported into Sri Lanka with 70 per cent of this going into domestic use while 30 per cent is used in export-related industry.

The positive side is that about 40 per cent of the plastics and thicker polythene is being recycled. The CEA currently has six recycling plants in operation and two more awaiting commissioning.

About 160 firms involved in plastic recycling are registered with the CEA and this number is expected to increase.

Worryingly, 60 per cent of the plastic and polythene used domestically ends up in garbage.

The authorities hope the ban on thin polythene will be effective. In Bangladesh, which banned the use of polythene bags in early 2000, media reports say polythene is making an illegal comeback.

A change in consumer attitude is key to the success of the strategy. Experts recommend the widespread teaching of the 3R principles: Refuse, Reuse and Recycle.

As consumers, we all have the power to refuse a polythene bag when it is not necessary and we can carry reusable bags.

Big demand: A shop that sells only ‘sili sili’ bags in Pettah. Pix by Indika Handuwala

Environmentalists derail garbage train to Aruwakkalu

October 7, 2015
Experts fear EIA report may go to the dustbin, point out major damage to habitat and heritage. 

Garbage disposal has been a major headache for Colombo which generates as much as 1,200 metric tonnes of rubbish every day. The dumping sites, some of them in the midst of residential areas, are also bursting at the seams.

No solution yet for Colombo’s garbage problem: The Meethotamulla garbage dump

 As the crisis aggravated, a new project to collect the garbage, transport it by train and dump it in a Sanitary Landfill in Puttalam emerged as a solution. But environmentalists are now raising serious concerns over the project.

The plan seeks to convert the present garbage dump at Meethotamulla in Kolonnawa into a collection center complete with rail tracks and loading facilities.

The compacted waste will be packed in 20-foot containers and sent by train to the landfill site at Aruwakkalu, just North of Puttalam, about 170 kilometres away from Colombo.

The 30-hectare Aruwakkalu site, leased out to Holcim Cement Company, has many abandoned quarries, from where limestone was extracted by the Cement Corporation some 20 years ago.

The site will be designed to absorb up to 4,700,000 cubic metres of garbage for 10 years in 2 phases.

But to the dismay of environmentalists, the site is within the one mile buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park – a fact that has been highlighted in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.

The document points out that the site is frequented by several wild animals, including elephants and warns that once the garbage comes, it can attract more elephants to the area, aggravating the human-elephant conflict, especially in the fishing village near the site.

The EIA report recommends several steps to prevent elephants and other animals from coming to the area. They include erecting an electric fence and closing up the landfill on a daily basis after the garbage has been deposited.

The forest adjacent to the landfill site is also home for a critically endangered legume crop, a wild relative of ‘Bu-kollu’ (Rhynchosia velutina) which has so far been spotted only in two places in Sri Lanka.

The environmentalists also express concerns over the impact of the project on the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya Estuary which supports the largest, richest, and the most pristine mangrove patch in Sri Lanka and is also just 200 m northeast of the site.

Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) says the project is a crime and not worth the cost. He says the solution lies not in dumping garbage at landfill sites but addressing the root cause.

“Go for a zero-waste model promoting recycling. It will be a sustainable solution. Sometimes drastic measures such as banning polythene and plastic might have to be taken – but it will help in the long run,” he said.  Mr. Withanage said the people must also act with responsibility to minimise garbage.

The US$ 107 million landfill site project was approved by the previous government after a cabinet paper was submitted by the then President Mahinda Rajapakse in his capacity as Minister of Urban Development.

Environmentalists fear that just as the previous regime showed scant respect for EIAs and tweaked the findings to do development at ‘any cost’; the present Government also could distort the EIA.

Many experts recognise that the solid waste problem requires an urgent solution but it does not mean creating another environmental crisis.
Due to the limestone base and dynamiting, the base of the solid waste pit could be impermeable.

The leachate will contaminate the pristine habitats of the Kala Oya. Some experts suggest that to minimise the negative impacts, the solid waste should be dumped in the abandoned Holcim pits which are more towards the interior of Aruwakkalu.But the company is not in favour of this suggestion, environmentalists say.

This is why the present site has been selected for the project even though its negative impacts are apparent. It is also feared that uncontrolled dynamiting could damage the bottom lining of the landfill site, paving the way for leakages.

When contacted, a Holcim spokesperson said the quarry was being blasted with permission from the Geological and Mines Bureau and the company was following standard protocols. They said the landfill was a government project and it had nothing to do with it.

However, the project needs approval not only from the Central Environment Authority (CEA) but also from the North Western Provincial Council and the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) as the site is located within the buffer zone of a national park.

When contacted, CEA Chairman Lal Dharmaratne said the EIA had been submitted to the technical committee and was being evaluated. The EIA is posted on the CEA’s website for the public to send protests and comments before October 13.

Wedi Pitiya: 25 million year heritage site cannot go under garbage 

Palaeobiologists who explore prehistoric biodiversity have joined environmentalists to oppose the Aruwakkalu project as it is likely to harm South Asia’s prime Miocene fossil site.The quarry that Holcim excavates contains fossils belonging to the Miocene era some 25 million years ago. During this era, this area had been a sea bed and the cement raw material that is being dug is in fact calcified fossilised shells or bony remains of many sea creatures which died millions of years ago.

The site known as ‘Wedi Pitiya’ is particularly unique as it is in its vicinity that P.E.P. Deraniyagala documented nearly 40 species of prehistoric invertebrates and marine vertebrates such as Dugongs, dolphins, whales and sea turtles from their bony remains belonging to the Miocene era.

This indicates that ‘Wedi Pitiya’ could in fact be a deeper zone of the sea. The Red Bed which lies above the Miocene Bed also contains stone tools, potsherds, beads and bony remains of prehistoric human habitation dating back to more than 250,000 years.

Considering its place in the history of Sri Lanka and its evolutionary importance to biodiversity in view of possible future finds, the Palaeobiodiversity Conservation Programme under the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the Forest Department (to whom the land belongs) and the Department of Archaeology has identified a 300m x 500m area at ‘wedi pitiya’ along with 3 other sites in Aruwakkalu to be gazzetted as a protected area.

This tiny area will be the only remaining Miocene area in Sri Lanka after the Holcim Company has finished mining Aruwakkalu, but sadly a section of ‘Wedi Pitiya’ has been included in the proposed landfill site.

“Aruwakkalu is a gold mine for palaeobiodiversity studies. The excavation for limestone made visible a large cross section of a wall showing the fossil layers and this could easily attract foreign students studying paleobiodiversity to Sri Lanka,” says Kelum Manamendra-arachchie, who is Sri Lanka’s palaeobiodiversity expert.

“The Aruwakkalu site is the only visible Miocene site in Sri Lanka. Its prehistoric artefacts, the traditional fishing village of ‘Gange Wadiya’ and the legend of Kuveni can be utilised to promote ‘geo tourism’. So it is pity that our heritage is going to be covered by garbage,” Mr. Manamendraarachchie said.


“The site is the worst, but concept is good” – Waste Management expert 

The 30-hectare land chosen for the sanitary landfill is the worst possible area in Aruwakkalu, says Solid Waste Management expert Sumith Pilapitiya.

Primarily, the site is too close to Kala Oya, an important water source in the area. Secondly, it is located within the Wilpattu Buffer zone, an ecologically sensitive area.

The site is also close to ‘Gange Wadiya’, the only human settlement in the area and, therefore, the traditional livelihood of the villagers will be disturbed, he explains.

However, unlike many other environmentalists, Dr. Pilapitiya believes that in the absence of a solution to Colombo’ solid waste problem so far, a sanitary landfill at Aruwakkalu could be a good idea only if an alternative suitable site is selected in the same area.

The search for landfill sites within a 50 km radius from Colombo to dump wastes has been going on since 1990 with little or no success amid protests from residents living near the possible sites.

Experts describe this dilemma as typical of the NIMBY syndrome- all want a solution to Colombo’s waste problem, but at the same time they say, “Not in my backyard (NIMBY)”.

This compels the authorities to go for temporary solutions which in turn lead to environmental pollution, the magnitude of which is much bigger than the originally proposed solution. The crisis over the Meethotamulla dump is a classic example.

Aruwakkalu in Puttalam is not a populated area and it has already suffered environmental damage as a result of limestone quarrying by cement companies. Since a suitable landfill site cannot be found closer to Colombo without drawing public protests, this could be a viable option, if the project is properly implemented, Dr. Pilapitiya explains.

To address the concerns raised by some environmentalists, he proposes to select a site further south, more towards new Holcim quarries. “There is about a 15 km stretch of land between the currently selected site and Holcim excavating sites; so there is space for an alternative site,” he says.

Asked about how safe it is to transport solid waste in train wagons, Dr. Pilapitiya says there are specially designed rail rolling stock and containers that will not even let the smell out. He says the authorities should go in for such rolling stock and the cost of buying them could be added to the project.

Considering all these options, Dr. Pilapitiya proposes to make it a National Level project to solve not only Colombo’s solid waste problem but also those of other major cities.

The waste management expert also proposes to sort garbage and compost the perishable waste to minimise pollution and the load to be sent to the sanitary landfill. In this way, the dangerous leachate generated at the landfill site could also be minimised.

People are afraid of sanitary landfills, but if designed and managed properly, a sanitary landfill is good as it will confine pollution within the site, Dr. Pilapitiya says.

Commenting on other solutions proposed for the solid waste crisis, the expert renowned for his waste management work in Sri Lanka and abroad, says some propose incineration that involves the burning of waste material at high temperature as a solution, but garbage in Sri Lanka is largely organic and high in moisture content, and therefore this method is not economically viable.

Another option is plasma gasification – a process in which carbon-based waste is converted into fuel – gas that can be utilised to generate electricity. This has been successfully implemented at small and medium levels to deal with solid waste within a local council area. But Dr. Pilapitiya points to the project’s high human and capital costs and asks whether the authorities could afford it.

“When over 2/3rd of the Pilisaru funded compost plants in the country cannot be operated without odour and flies, I would not advocate sophisticated technology,” he says.

However, if the service provider is from the private sector and has the funds and capacity to sustain a hi-tech project, such an alternative could be explored.

Decision makers should study the waste disposal mechanisms that are being successfully operated in other South Asian countries – this is because the garbage is more or less similar in composition — and take a decision on a proper technology, he advises.

“Under these circumstances, my preference would be for composting the organic portion of the waste and landfilling the residual waste in an engineered, sanitary landfill. If the engineered, sanitary landfill is properly constructed, even if operations slip a little, the pollution can be largely contained,” says Dr. Pilapitiya.

Published on SundayTimes 04.10.2015

Are we sitting on an asbestos time bomb?

September 1, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena as the Environment Minister said that Steps will be taken to ban import of asbestos roofing sheets by 2018 ( The bad effects of Asbestos sheets has been known for a long time, but little action has been taken. Here is my 2011 article discussing the bad effects of Asbestos, emphasizing the need to minimize its usage.


Are we sitting on an asbestos time bomb?

Once considered a miracle material it kills more than 107,000 people each year-WHO
By Malaka Rodrigo | published on 10.07.2011 on SundayTimes
Asbestos was once tagged as a miracle material for its strength. But the move last month under the Rotterdam Convention, to list asbestos under hazardous materials, which need the prior consent of other countries in international trade, again highlighted safety drawbacks of asbestos.

Central Environment Authority (CEA) Chairman Charitha Herath, who represented Sri Lanka at this symposium, said the move to list white asbestos as a material that required Prior Informed Consent (PIC) did not materialize, adding however that the CEA has initiated an evaluation of asbestos in Sri Lanka. Mr. Herath said the committee comprised representatives from asbestos manufacturers, the Ministry of Health, Customs Department, Board of Investment, National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, Industrial Technology Institute, World Health Organisation (WHO) and other experts. The CEA, together with the University of Moratuwa, is already in the final stages of preparing an Asbestos Situation Report in Sri Lanka, he said.

Haphazard disposal of asbestos

There are many forms of asbestos, with blue asbestos already banned in Sri Lanka since 1997. But white asbestos (chrysotile asbestos) made by mixing asbestos fibre with cement, continues to be used mainly as roofing sheets. However, a WHO study reveals that all forms pose a health hazard. Asbestos is a fibre deposited in mineral format that needs to be extracted through a mining operation. This fibrous material is chemically known as hydrated magnesium silicate. Roofing sheets account for more than 80% of local asbestos use, but asbestos is also being used for vehicle friction parts such as brake pads.

While this tiny fibre-cement bond does not cause any harm, if it is released into the air and is inhaled over a long period, it can cause lung cancers and other asbestos related diseases. According to a WHO analysis, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, resulting mainly from occupational exposure. The asbestos-cement bond is said to be safe. But when the roofing sheets are being assembled and disposed, the fibre release is much higher. The bond also tends to loosen when the sheets age, while fungus attack too could cause release of the fibre. Applying a thick layer of paint can reduce this risk, points out some sources.

“The asbestos already on the roofs don’t add much fibre into the air, while trying to remove it will add more fibre into the air. It is the occupational exposure that is more harmful,” said Dr. Harishchandra Yakandawela, National Consultant, Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management WHO- (SAICM), set up under the Rotterdam Convention.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) revealed that several categories of workers working closely with asbestos related products are at higher risk. It lists asbestos factory workers, carpenters who work on roofing projects, labourers of asbestos stores facilities and workers at building demolishing sites as high risk categories. Motor mechanics are another group exposed to risk as brake pads also contain asbestos fibre. The NIOSH advises workers to use protective equipment, especially when cutting asbestos related materials, which releases lots of dust containing asbestos fibre.

Under its programme with the CEA, the Moratuwa University, also attempts to analyse Sri Lanka’s Cancer Registry, to evaluate a link with occupational related cancer. Around 18,000 are annually diagnosed with cancer in Sri Lanka, but collection of data relating to occupations of the cancer patients has been a difficult task. Dr. Yakandawala also reminded that it can takeabout 20-30 years for the real cancer to emerge, which makes it harder to track its root causes.

Sri Lanka has three main asbestos roofing sheet manufacturing companies and are said to be using precautions to safeguard their employees. However, it is important that the authorities constantly monitor the situation, as these employees can be in the line of direct exposure. Concentration of asbestos fibres in the air, duration of the exposure, frequency of exposure and the size of the asbestos fibres inhaled are some of the factors to which the seriousness of the asbestos related health risks is subject to. Carpenters working on roofs are the other category highly exposed to asbestos related health hazards. The NIOSH says it has given instructions and is prepared to conduct health checks on employees of asbestos manufacturing plants, but says it is too difficult to reach the informal working sector such as individual carpenters working on their own. This informal working group is very hard to monitor.

Many of them are even ignorant of such a danger, and just cut the asbestos, even without covering their noses, exposing themselves to high danger levels, where experts advise using 100% body cover when exposed to asbestos.

However, like e-waste, asbestos debris should also be disposed of with extreme care, points out Head of Hazardous Waste Unit CEA, Sarojinie Jayasekara. The CEA sets guidelines for the waste generated by asbestos manufacturing plants, but many of the household asbestos is being disposed of irresponsibly. According to the guidelines, these have to be buried much deeper in the earth. The 2004 tsunami was a good example, where a large number of houses with asbestos sheets were destroyed and disposed of at normal dumping grounds in Sri Lanka’s coastal belts.

“We cannot ban asbestos in Sri Lanka immediately, until we find a suitable alternative” said Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. The CEA chairman adds that awareness is the key to minimise asbestos related health hazards.

The Rotterdam Convention

The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to the importation of hazardous chemicals. The convention handles the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides that have severe effects for health or environmental reasons. The Convention came into operation in 2004 and Sri Lanka ratified the convention in 2006.


Down to earth in soil fertility with bio-fertilisers

October 7, 2013
Imported destructive agrochemicals make way for home grown solutions that are eco friendly and harmless – by Malaka Rodrigo 

The harmful impact of misuse and overuse of agrochemicals have been highlighted in articles published in the Sunday Times in the past few weeks. As an alternative, use of bio-fertilisers which is a method of directly applying living microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi to fertilise the soil is becoming popular among farmers, even though these too have to be used with care, point out experts.

Research activites pertaining to vermiwash being carried out at the IFS, Kandy

“Bio-fertilisers are a good nature-friendly way of enriching soil with nutrients by establishing natural nutrient cycles. However, as many foreign bio-fertiliser products are being introduced to farmers, without being tested, there is a risk of introducing harmful organisms too into the country,” warns Prof. Gamini Seneviratne of the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS), Kandy. “These harmful micro-organisms can be invasive, spreading fast and causing enough damage,” he added.

Numerous species of soil bacteria which grow on or around roots, stimulate plant growth. Some of these microorganisms such as Rhizobium bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen into soil and Pseudomonas Bacteria makes Phosphorus soluble, so plants can easily absorb them. Strains of these beneficial soil micro-organisms cultured in laboratories, come into the market as a bottled liquid. These bio-fertilisers can be mixed with compost and used in organic farming or as a supplement for chemical fertilisers. This can reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by at least by 25%.

In Sri Lanka, already there are companies producing bio-fertilisers. However, companies that import bio-fertilisers need to be closely supervised, as they cannot guarantee that imported bio-fertilisers are harmless. Hence, there should be a mechanism to monitor the quality and safety of the imported bio-fertilisers, emphasizes Prof. Seneviratne.

The IFS researcher stresses that the country can benefit from bio-fertilisers, because they are low cost, renewable sources of plant nutrients which can reduce use of chemical fertilisers. Prof. Seneviratne also revealed that an IFS project conducted in collaboration with the Tea Research Institute (TRI) is on the verge of introducing a new, patented formula of bio-fertiliser known as “Biofilmed bio-fertilisers” (BFBF), which has been rigorously tested for more than eight years.

Trials with tea revealed that the new fertiliser can actually reduce use of chemical fertiliser by 50%. It is to be introduced for commercial development by the end of the year. Developing BFBFs for other crops is under way. There are bio-pesticides too, which use similar techniques, but Dr Anura Wijesekara of the Pesticide Registrar’s office confirmed that Sri Lanka does not import bio-pesticides.

‘Vermiwash’ is a solution that contains extracts of earthworm enriched soil. The ‘Green Revolution’ initiated in the 1960s had promoted agrochemicals usage which Sri Lanka embraced. But once convinced of the ill-effects of agrochemicals, agro experts are returning to nature’s way. Earthworms to return fertiliser to the soil

At school we are taught that earthworms are a part of soil biodiversity that help enrich soil fertility. But, to promote the green revolution, we continue to use agrochemicals which kill these friendly creatures. Realising the important services earthworms provide to the soil, agricultural experts have experimented in getting the services rendered by these earthworms, into a specific fertiliser.

“Vermiwash’ is a liquid extract from soil worked on by earthworms. This contains friendly microbes and enzymes that stimulate plant growth,” Dr Gamini Hitinayake of Peradeniya University said.

A microbiological study of vermiwash has revealed that it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria too. It is therefore an effective way of getting the nutrients back into the soil.

It contains enzymes- secretions of earthworms, which would stimulate the growth and yield of crops, and even develop resistance in crops.

Pointing out that vermiwash was not difficult to make and could be used for home gardens, Dr. Hitinayake gave the following steps:

  • Make small holes at the bottom of a barrel or large container mounted on a little platform.
  • Introduce soil containing earthworms into the container.
  • Introduce drips of water from the top onto the earthworm-rich soil, while collecting the runoff water from the bottom.
  • Mix this with water and apply to the crops.

Published on SundayTimes on 29.09.2013

Excessive use of agrochemicals pollutes groundwater in many places

September 27, 2013

Last month, the Sunday Times highlighted that Sri Lanka’s farmers were over-using agro-chemicals, and warned that it could ultimately penetrate into the groundwater. This has now been confirmed by a study conducted by the Water Resources Board (WRB).

WRB Director General R.S. Wijesekare revealed that chemical compounds such as Nitrates, Phosphates and heavy metals were found in excess in many places in the districts they surveyed. The survey covered Jaffna, Ampara, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Matale and Gampaha districts. Excessive Nitrate compounds were in samples taken from Kalpitiya and Jaffna, while Phosphate was in abundance in samples taken in Ampara. In samples from Anuradhapura, heavy metals such as Arsenic were found in quantities exceeding standard levels, he confirmed.

Some of the agrochemicals will be absorbed by plants, but most of it will collect on the soil or be washed away as runoff. Part of it leaches through to the groundwater. What goes in will come out, so not only the people in the immediate vicinity, but others in the area too could be affected by contamination.

Water samples from 30 Secretariat Divisions covering these districts have been collected periodically, under this study initiated in 2011. Mr Wijesekare said that the results have highlighted the need for some control of using agro chemicals. He said that WRB with other agencies such as the Agriculture department and farmers are planning to conduct a program in Puttalam to educate farmers to use the Agrochemicals responsibly while monitoring the ground water periodically to check for improvements of the quality. He also said the survey has been done on a Pilot scale and are trying to do the exercise covering the whole island.

Head of Sri Lanka programme of International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Dr Herath Manthreetilake has also stressed the importance of having such programmes at least in priority areas prone to groundwater pollution.

He also pointed out that periodic monitoring has to be continuous, to get a clear idea of pollution levels. Isolated incidents of chemical spills on depleted groundwater reserves due to drought, can increase the concentration of chemicals, so the results may not be entirely accurate – but data captured periodically on the groundwater condition can give a better picture. Dr Manthreetilake said that groundwater in most industrial countries such as Japan, are polluted beyond usage. Therefore, to avoid falling into the same trap, it is important to continue with a proper monitoring mechanism of groundwater sources.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.09.2013 

Setup polluting industries in industrial zone: Environmentalists

August 19, 2013

It is reported that the President has ordered the Rathupaswala factory be relocated in an industrial zone. Environmentalists agree that industries which have the potential to pollute the environment should be located in industrial zones.

“It is better to set up polluting industries in industrial zones instead of in populated areas that are environmentally sensitive,” stressed Hemantha Withanage of Environment Justice. He pointed out that the first level of waste water and other pollutants needs to undergo primary treatment by the factories themselves, and another secondary process before releasing the effluent into the environment. Locating all the industries in a central area also makes it easier to regulate and monitor the process.

However, it is noticed that some of the non-polluting industries too are set up within industrial zones, which is a waste of resources, according to Avanthi Jayatilake of EML Consultants. Being an Environment Professional specialising in Waste Management, Avanthi lists out rubber processing, chemical processing, paint industry and garment dyeing as some of the industries that have a large pollution footprint. These should be located within industrial zones, he urged.

Avanthi also points out that some of the small scale facilities – such as electroplating – can emit harmful substances such as heavy metals. Even service stations and petrol sheds could cause environmental damage in the long run. So he suggests setting up ‘Mini Industrial Zones’ for polluting facilities. Avanthi who previously worked under the Central Environment Authority (CEA) is of the view that the CEA alone would not be able to monitor every industry in Sri Lanka, hence his suggestion to set up mini zones – perhaps one for 4 or 5 villages – which will facilitate greater reduction in pollution by small-scale operators.

However, there are also complaints regarding waste management within these industrial zones. A Sunday Times report on Moratuwa University’s Civil Engineering website titled ‘Industrial Waste Management: Free Trade Zones in Sri Lanka’, mentions of continuous complaints reported from the public, as well as ministries, on improper waste management practices prevailing within the free trade zones.

The report lists inadequate knowledge on industrial solid waste recovery, processing and disposal, profit oriented private sector, lack of coordination among internal bodies, loopholes in legal provision as some of the issues leading to failure in waste disposal.

Unawareness of new industrial waste management strategies too leads to not having efficient waste management system. “Monitoring is the key to avoid pollution by industries, whether they are within industrial zones or outside” says Institute of Environmental Professionals of Sri Lanka (IEPSL) President Prof Hemanthi Ranasinghe.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.08.2013

Not just Rathupaswela, many more areas polluted by factory waste

Following allegations that waste material from a company was polluting the water in Rathupaswala, Weliwerivya, similar cases of environmental pollution have been reported from various parts of the country. The other areas include Ekala, Kadalawala-Wattala close to Bopitiya, Jaela, Katunayake, Biyagama, Muthurajawela and Galle, environmentalists say. – By Mirudala Thambiah 

A resident in Ekala shows the yellow water that comes from his tube well

When the Sunday Times visited the Kadalawala area where charges have been levelled at a palm oil company for polluting the environment people complained of breathing difficulties because of the black fumes emanating from the factory. “My wife and son have severe phlegm. They have been to many doctors and they all say they are being affected by some pollutant in the air,” a resident who didn’t want to be named said.

He said vllagers had protested against the factory urging authorities to move the factory to another place. But the protests came to a halt when the villagers were threatened by unidentified groups. He said the soil too in Kadalawala area appeared to be contaminated as crop cultivation especially banana and coconut had been affected. “Even tube well water is contaminated. We cannot use the water even to wash clothes unlike three or four years ago.

One could get the heavy pungent smell of oil in the air. “Previously the factory used gas to boil the oil but recently they have been using firewood to bring down the cost. After they started using firewood air pollution has increased and the smell is very strong,” the villager said.

According to villagers India had rejected a proposal to set up this palm oil factory therefore it was built in Sri Lanka. Environmentalist Ravindra Kariyawasam too confirmed this. Meanwhile another resident complained that the factory recycled waste thrice a month causing severe air pollution. He said the activities were carried out late in the nights and early mornings.

In another instance a paint factory on St. Anthony’s Mawatha in Ekala has been found to be dumping effluents that are allegedly polluting the water in the area. Most of the residents in this area depend on well and tube well water. According to the residents living in the vicinity of the factory they had found yellow water in the wells and tube wells.

The residents said they had agitated against the company and had lodged many complaints with necessary authorities. Following this the paint company had provided area residents with drinking water in huge tubs.  A year ago the residents had obtained a waterline from the Water Supply Board. But the people say they cannot pay for the water as they are low-income earners. Therefore they continue to use the ‘yellow water’ for their day-to-day activities like bathing and washing except for drinking. Sarathkumara a resident said some people had loss of teeth, skin allergies because of the yellow water. The water also has a bad smell he added.

The Palm oil Factory. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte

In another case in Galle, water contamination has been reported due to chemical waste released from shoe factories. The well water had turned black affecting more than 30 people who are reportedly suffering from cancer, the Sunday Times learns.  According to Environmentalist Ravindra Kariyawasam, National Coordinator, Centre for Environment and Nature Studies, sme 200 families living in Imaduwa and Dorape in Galle have been affected by this ‘black water’. A complaint has been lodged at the Central Environment Authority to test the water and soil in the area.

Mr. Kariyawasam said the factory owners have promised to solve the problem if the contamination was found to be due the effluents from the factory. Hemantha Withanage , Director Centre for Environmental Justice said although most of the factories in Ekala and Jaela hold an Environmental Protection License they dump asbestos and other kinds of waste in the marshy land in the area.

“Many of the residents in these areas are unaware that asbestos has been used to fill their lands but assume it is being filled with cement. They are unaware of the contamination. Ordinary people don’t know about PH levels in their drinking water,” he said.
Mr. Withanage stressed that the water and soil should be tested by Public Health Inspectors in affected areas to test the PH levels. But this is not carried out. Even the CEA has district level offices to examine environment issues yet this does not happen.

Mr. Withanage added that the Environmental Protection Licence is renewed every two to three years but it should be renewed every year and the CEA should inspect it.  He charged that the law enforcement aspect of the CEA was not strong enough.

However Dr. R.M.S.K Rathnayake Director of Environment Pollution Control Division attached to the CEA, said that the National Environmental Act was being amended to bring in stronger regulatory powers. “Now an order has to be obtained by the court to take action against an alleged factory, but after the amendment the laws will be stronger and the CEA would be able to take action directly,” he said.

According to the National Environmental Act a six month imprisonment or a fine not less than Rs.10, 000 or both is imposed on those found guilty. CEA statistics reveal 72 complaints relating waste-disposal have been reported so far this year

Who pollutes Rathupaswala water..?

August 12, 2013
Pollution by industrial effluents, an ever present hazard for those living in the vicinity of factories 

The agitation for clean water in Rathupaswala has ended with deaths, injuries and damage to property. A joint investigation is being conducted by related government agencies to ascertain who is at fault for the water pollution. However, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara of Environmental Conservation Trust points his finger directly at the factory, for the improper release of industrial waste, as a cause for this catastrophe.

water contaminationHe alleged that the factory has been releasing waste water into the environment without being properly treated, which rendered the area’s ground water acidic. He also blames Central Environment Authority (CEA) and Board of Investment (BOI) for not properly monitoring the factory’s process.

The problem in Rathupaswala emerged when villagers requested the Water Supply and Drainage Board (WSDB) to test the water, after several of them had fallen ill, as they felt something was wrong with the quality of water. Results revealed that the pH level of the water was lower than 7 (normal), which means it is acidic. Pure water has a pH very close to 7; but the water in Rathupaswala had a PH level around 4, as alleged by the villagers.

Villagers then lodged a formal complaint at the regional office of the CEA in Gampaha. CEA Director General, Dr Saranga Alahapperuma talking to the Sunday Times confirms that the agency’s Gampaha regional office has received a formal complaint on July 16, and next day they sent a team to investigate. Later, a BOI investigation was started. The DG said that an investigation of this nature takes at least a fortnight for the results. Unfortunately, events unfolded on August 2 taking 3 lives. Now a joint investigation is being conducted by the CEA, the BOI, the WSDB, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) and experts from several universities. He said the results would be released by next week.

The factory at the center of the controversy is Dipped Products Ltd (DPL) owned by the Hayleys Group. which was set up in 1994 in Nedungamuwa, Weliweriya, as a BOI project. The plant manufactures Latex Gloves by processing natural rubber, which involves many chemicals. As a result, the processes generate many harmful industrial waste that require treatment to dilute their harmful nature, before release into the environment. There is a provision that the BOI can issue Environmental Protection Licences (EPL) under the National Environment Act, after obtaining concurrence from the CEA, and the factory has been offered initial EPL.

Weliweriya protesters with Handwritten Placards - one says Nadungamuwa Raja - a tusker honored by carrying Dalada Karaduwa that was stationed in close proximity stopped drinking well water for few weeks

Weliweriya protesters with Handwritten Placards – one says Nadungamuwa Raja – a tusker honored by carrying Dalada Karaduwa that was stationed in close proximity stopped drinking well water for few weeks as per villagers

CEA DG admitted that approval for the EPL’s renewal, which is an annual requirement, is usually granted on reports submitted by the company seeking same, unless there is a complaint, when the CEA then conducts investigations. He also admitted the importance of having independent analyses from time to time, which mechanism the agency is looking at in the future.

Meanwhile, it is also alleged that the sludge – or residual materials left from industrial wastewater – has been dumped in the area sans any precautions. When the Sunday Times queried about this, from DPL Managing Director Dr Mahesha Ranasoma, he said that, prior to January 2012, the factory was disposing solid waste at landfills known to the Pradeshiya Sabha (PS). From January 2012, the company entered into an agreement with GeoCycle (Holcim Lanka Ltd.) whereby, GeoCycle disposes the solid waste, with the exception of wood ash, unutilised wood chips and waste cotton, which are disposed at PS approved sites.

Denying all the other allegations, Dr Ranasoma said the factory complies with CEA and BOI standards for releasing rubber industry effluents to the surface water, and operates under the renewed EPL. He pointed out that for the processing of rubber, Alkaline chemicals are mainly used, not the acids. So the pH value always remains higher than 7, should pollution occur. He added that, DPL does not use any acid for the manufacture of rubber gloves. However, they use a commercially purchased acidic material (10%-30% mixture of Nitric and Sulphuric acid) for mould washing. This acid is always re-used by topping up with fresh material. If we do need to dispose it, we treat it the same way as the mould washings described above.

Dr Ranasoma also said that their effluent water quality is regularly tested by the National Building and Research Organization (NBRO) every three months. He said they are disposing the treated effluent according to EPL standards, to designated soakage areas which is their coconut land. Their treatment plant is designed to cater to up to five plants, according to Dr Ranasoma.

It is claimed that Nedungamuwa, Weliweriya, is an area where shallow water could have a natural pH less than 6.5. Chemistry professor O.A. Illeperuma says there is a possibility of the soil being naturally acidic in these areas due to the presence of laterite, which is an iron rich mineral.

The red soil resulting from the disintegration of these lateritic rocks is fairly widespread in the Western province including the Gampaha district and also around Nugegoda and Maharagama. Hence, the village derives its name “Rathupaswala” from the presence of the red soil, opines Prof Illeperuma. Such soils have high concentrations of iron- in the ferric form – by bonding with water (hydrolysis), which renders it acidic.

Prof Illeperuma too says that he cannot understand how this type of pollution has arisen all of a sudden, if this theory is true. However, in order to verify this, it is necessary to do a comprehensive water analysis programme of the affected and surrounding areas, points out Prof Illeperuma. So, there seems to be more questions than answers at Weliweriya as to who the real polluter is. But whoever it is, the fact of the matter is quality of the water has deteriorated, to the detriment of the welfare and wellbeing of the people of Rathupaswala.

Industrial water pollution a regulatory failure: Environmentalists 

Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) reveals there are hundreds of such cases of pollution linked to industries in Sri Lanka, and highlights the need for preventive actions through regular independent monitoring.

Whoever is responsible for the water pollution in Rathupaswala, the incident is also a clear indication that regulatory measures are not being properly implemented, making it a dire need for its strengthening to prevent future pollution case, points out Mr Withanage. He said the issue of environmental licences also needs to be evaluated, and the water sources in the vicinity of factories, notwithstanding their effluents, regularly monitored.

Mr Hemantha insists that Water Quality undergo comprehensive testing for an accurate extent of pollution. For example, Tolerance Limits for Industrial Wastewater in Sri Lanka lists 22 parameters including harmful chemicals such as arsenic, and pH level is only one of them.

He says these tests have to be conducted independently, which, if the CEA had done, this problem would not have gone this far. He also was displeased with the process of issuing EPLs, pointing out that the process is not properly governed due to corruption.

Environmental Organisations too have a role to play, some concerned citizens points out, taking India as an example. Some of the green NGOs in India, such as Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) conduct their own investigations in air and water pollutions. These kinds of independent investigations should be done in Sri Lanka too.

However, these tests are costly, and to check all the parameters, the test costs Rs 39,000, added Mr Hemantha. 

Published on SundayTimes on 11.08.2013

Mercury to be phased out with health warnings

January 27, 2013

The heavy metal that carries heavy health risks is under close scrutiny, writes Malaka Rodrigo�

Mercury is also found in household equipment and instruments, including thermometers and energy saving CFL bulbs. After use, these materials should be disposed of in a responsible way so that their mercury content does not leak into the environment.”

Watch out for the mercury content in beauty products and other common household goods and appliances.
Mercury and its compounds can cause serious health problems, including brain and neurological damage, as well as damage to the kidneys and the digestive system. Victims can also suffer memory loss and language impairment, as well as other health problems.

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) sent out this warning based on findings among countries that advocate international and local screening of beauty and other products for the presence of mercury.

Mercury is a common substance used in whitening cream, but there is no proper safety screening for mercury content in Sri Lanka, says CEJ’s executive director Hemantha Withanage, as well as Cosmetic Devices and Drugs Regulatory Authority (CDDRA) director Dr. Hemantha Beneragama.

All cosmetic products sold in Sri Lanka should be approved by the CDDRA. For now, products are tested only for arsenic and lead content in the heavy metal category, Dr. Beneragama told the Sunday Times. So far no South-Asian country conducts mercury tests, and the Sri Lanka Standards Institute has no defined level for mercury in cosmetics, he said.�

The CDDRA has had discussions with the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) on mercury testing mechanisms, Dr. Beneragama said. Until standards are determined, cosmetics samples will be sent to Singapore for testing. Consumers should avoid cheap unregistered products that would not have been tested for mercury, Dr. Beneragama said

Mercury is also found in household equipment and instruments, including thermometers and energy saving CFL bulbs. After use, these materials should be disposed of in a responsible way so that their mercury content does not leak into the environment. The Central Environment Authority’s hazardous management programme advises consumers to hand over used CFL bulbs to an E-waste recycler.�

The Ministry of Health has recommended phasing out mercury-based thermometers and blood pressure monitoring sphygmomanometers. These instruments are already being phased out at hospitals.
Mercury in the environment can enter the human body through food and food chains, such as fish containing methyl mercury.

A mercury content test was recently conducted in Negombo. Hair and fish samples taken from a Negombo site were sent overseas for testing. The hair samples had between 0.77 and 4.55 parts of mercury per million parts. The Japanese guideline for mercury in seafood is 0.4 parts per million. The local fish samples did not contain a measurable level of mercury. The CEJ pointed out that the research team had collected only one fish species.�

The tests were supervised by the Centre for Environmental Justice and an international body called IPEN, which works for a toxic-free future.

Global mercury agreement

An international convention aimed at eliminating mercury usage was signed in Geneva recently during sessions convened by the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP.  

The convention is a global, legally-binding treaty to prevent emissions and releases of mercury. The Minamata Convention on Mercury is named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th century.

Gamini Gamage of the Environment Ministry participated in the talks. He said the new agreement provided controls across a range of products, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects.

Initial funding to fast-track action until the new treaty comes into force in three to five years’ time has been pledged by Japan, Norway and Switzerland.

Through the Minamata Convention, governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, export and import will be banned by 2020.

These include:-

– Batteries, excluding button-cell batteries used in implantable medical devices

– Switches and relays

– Certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)

– Mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps

– Soaps and cosmetics

–Non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices

Exceptions were allowed for devices for which there are no mercury-free alternatives.

Delegates agreed to a phasing down in dental fillings using mercury amalgam.

Published on SundayTimes on 27.01.2013