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 http://www.cea.lk 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 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151004/news/environmentalists-derail-garbage-train-to-aruwakkalu-166659.html