Sanitary project Aruwakkalu landfill another white elephant?

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Sri Lanka is facing a garbage crisis among other crises. It’s clear that we haven’t learned any lesson from the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse which also claimed 32 lives. While the Government proposed the Aruwakkalu sanitary landfill project as a long-term viable option, it seems to be a threat to Puttalam, apart from the Norochcholai Power Plant and the cement factory. Although plans have been drawn to establish this facility by early next year, speculation is rife as to whether the project is being done under proper technical guidance. With that in mind the Daily Mirror sheds light on the current status of the project and shortcomings highlighted in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Making big money

Recently, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development (MOMWD) announced that Kerawalapitiya has exceeded its capacity to collect degradable waste, adding pressure on the garbage disposal activities carried out by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). What resulted was the accumulation of garbage along main roads and by-roads in Colombo. People complained of being around unhygienic environments as garbage started piling up right in front of their residences. Since the suggested train facility to transport garbage is still not in place, the CMC had to transport garbage by road. But, in a statement issued by the CMC, it stated that the Vanathavilluva Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman has demanded Rs 2.5 million for transporting garbage by road. When the Daily Mirror contacted the PS Chairman Samantha Munasinghe he opined that they could demand money as per the Pradeshiya Sabha Act. As a temporary solution the CMC lodged a complaint at the Court of Appeal and the Court ordered that they could dump garbage at Aruwakkalu as a temporary solution and issued an interim order stopping the Vanathavilluva PS from demanding money from CMC. 

Politically motivated agenda beyond CMC’s control : Rosy

In the wake of the incident the Daily Mirror spoke to Colombo mayoress Rosy Senanayake who blamed the Central Government for not being able to address the issue. “When the Central Government said that Kerawalapitiya has exceeded its capacity we made every effort to clear transportation and ensured that garbage would be taken to Aruwakkalu. Then the Vanathavilluva PS started demanding money and what not and finally we had to go to Courts. I have to spend Colombo residents’ money to solve this matter. This is a fault of the Central Government and I strongly believe that this is a politically motivated agenda beyond the control of the CMC,” she said.


 I have to spend Colombo residents’ money to solve this matter. This is a fault of the Central Government


Questionable contractors

The Aruwakkalu sanitary landfill project commenced with much fanfare. Some claimed it to be the best solution for the garbage issue. But there have been shortcomings since it’s inception, the Daily Mirror learns. Although the World Bank agreed to fund the Project, the MOMWD dumped the World Bank project and handed over the contract to the China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd. (CHECC), the same entity that took over the Port City Project. However, at the onset of signing the agreement in December 2017, it was revealed that the CHECC won the USD 100.9 million contract which included building transfer facilities at Kelaniya and Aruwakkalu in addition to railway lines to transport garbage daily. However the losing bidder M/s Kolon-Hansel-KECC, a South Korean joint venture has questioned CHECC’s eligibility to carry out such a project as the bidder should either have landfill design experience or submit its application with a joint partner that had such expertise. However, it’s a known fact that CHECC, a subsidiary of China Communications Constructions Company Ltd, along with all of its subsidiaries were debarred by the World Bank from January 2011 to January 2017 for alleged fraudulent bidding practices according to the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group. 


But the CMC should be responsible for collecting, transporting and dumping garbage in a scientific manner


CHECC won the contract after a competitive bidding process : Ranawaka

With that in mind the Daily Mirror questioned subject minister Patali Champika Ranawaka as to why the World Bank pulled out. “The World Bank didn’t submit such a proposal at the very outset. If the CHECC is a blacklisted company, how can they be doing the Port City project? They are not blacklisted and we selected them after calling for competitive bidding. The cost of the entire project is USD 105 million,” Ranawaka said. 

When asked about the Aruwakkalu landfill project he said that the Ministry would take the entire responsibility of constructing and maintaining the facility. “But the CMC should be responsible for collecting, transporting and dumping garbage in a scientific manner. The train facility will be completed by February next year.”

An erroneous EIA

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a fundamental document that needs to be in place when a construction is taking place in an environmentally sensitive area. But officials seem to have failed in drafting an effective EIA. This is mainly due to several risks and vulnerabilities that area residents and the environment would face if the project is proceeded in a haphazard manner. Some of the errors are as follows :

Location

The EIA erroneously asserts that there are no human habitations near the landfill site. But there are two large villages located 300 metres away from the site with a combined population of 5000 people. 

Animal attacks

Located only 6 km from the Southern boundary of the Wilpattu National Park and the odour emitted by organic waste from the landfill would attract elephants and other animals to the area. Electric fencing may protect the landfill, but no provision has been made to protect the villages from animal invasions or attacks. When the Daily Mirror visited the area, there were signs of a roaming elephant(s) and animals such as wild boar. 

Explosion risk

Methane gas emissions from the landfill exposes the villages located so close to it to explosion risks. The buffer between the landfill and the villages is not adequate to minimise the risk. 


Pollution of groundwater 

Located right on top of the proposed landfill site is the country’s largest freshwater aquifer. The active limestone quarry located only 1 km from the proposed landfill site exposes the aquifers to leachate leak through landfill lining due to vibration from explosions for limestone extraction. The Daily Mirror learned that groundwater aquifers extend up to Mannar. And Mannar has thousands of tube wells since the area is drier than Puttalam. In the event any affluents mix with water, it would contaminate water in Mannar and this water is utilised by people for drinking and agricultural purposes. 


People behind the garbage scam should be identified : Dr. Senanayake

Though politicians thought this country was a dumping foreign garbage, I pray that the rest of the country does not share these views

When contacted Rainforest Rescue International Chairman Dr. Ranil Senanayake said that one of the fundamentals to keep in mind when constructing a sanitary landfill facility is that it shouldn’t be close to a river and that it should be located in impervious substrate. “The site is an old limestone quarry. 

Lime stone is very porous and water moves laterally very fast in such zones.  Although there was  a plan to put in an impervious layer and pipes to take out the leachate, which could have helped somewhat, it looks as if we are going to dump without any safeguards. What would happen if you dump without an impervious layer is that the leachate would enter the Puttalam lagoon and the Mannar sea where over 18% of the fish consumed through the nation comes from. The leachate containing heavy metals will build up the food chain in the lagoon and sea and begin to poison the population of the country.” 

When asked about a long-term solution for the garbage issue, he said that people behind the garbage scam need to be identified. “Just because some politicians thought this country was good for dumping foreign garbage, I pray that the rest of the country does not share these low, hoodlum views of our country. “To begin to create a solution we must begin to think that we are not a garbage dump as a nation. Otherwise there is no long-term solution. So if the Government does not send out all foreign garbage as soon as possible and cancel all trade agreements that allow such destruction, our nation will be known as a foreign dumping land. The only long-term solution is to await a leadership that has the well-being of this nation at heart and can demonstrate it!” said Dr. Senanayake. 


 

We will monitor vibrations and even take measures to control the odour. For that we will be spraying a bacteria


No big issue as portrayed by residents : Prof. Jayaweera

When asked about these shortcomings, Prof. Mahesh Jayaweera, technical consultant to MOMWD said that there doesn’t seem to be a big issue as portrayed by area residents. “We will monitor vibrations and even take measures to control the odour. For that we will be spraying a bacteria and we already have had discussions with a company that produces this bacteria locally. So they will start working on it very soon. Although area residents have protested against this project, they haven’t proved substantial evidence on why it shouldn’t be done.”

Serakkuli under threat

When the Daily Mirror visited Puttalam it was brought to our attention that the project is actually being done in Serakkuli and not in Aruwakkalu. Adjoining villages include Serakkuli, Karaitivu, Periyanagavillu, Mangalapura, Eluwankulam and Gange wadiya and Serakkuli alone has close to 300 families. Their main mode of income is fishing, but fishermen seem to have observed unusual phenomenon such as lifeless mussels floating ashore. The Daily Mirror witnessed thousands of mussels piled up on the seashore and according to the fishermen this could be due to a toxic substance being present at the seabed. They also pointed out that during a heavy downpour, chances are high that garbage would be washed away to the lagoon.


Rule of law has been selectively applied -Mubarack

“It was in 2015 that the Government thought of starting this project after the garbage matter seemed to have no solution,” said Saheed Mohomed Mubarack, an environmental activist in the area. “Then they wanted to deposit garbage in Ekala, but there were many objections and finally decided on the Aruwakkalu area where limestone have been quarried by the former Cement Corporation and subsequently by Holcim. Then they bulldozed the entire area and dug it up once again. Then they have put a layer of sand and on top of that is a 1.5mm thick polythene. According to the EIA, they want to go on loading garbage on top of this polythene for 10 years. But now the Minister says that they are going to dump for 80 years. Even if the polythene is able to bear the load, around 1.5km away there’s continuous blasting for limestone. Due to the blasting the houses situated around 500m-1km away have cracked walls,” said Mubarack.

Apart from that the Daily Mirror also came across a study done on the leachate aspect of it and the researcher was taken out of the Committee for pointing out possible threats to the environment. Mubarack further said that the EIA drafted by the Ministry has many shortcomings. “When drafting an EIA they need to speak to people in the area but for this EIA they have only spoken to two people, that too a farmer and a Buddhist priest. We have been fighting against the project since 2016. Garbage is brought from Colombo, Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia, Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte and Kolonnawa. According to the EIA they have to transport garbage in sealed containers by train and there are no provisions in the EIA to transport garbage by road. Additionally they must get the Environmental Protection Licence (EPL) in order to dump garbage. When the CMC toppers arrived they didn’t have the EPL. Although the rule of law is there in the country, it is selectively applied.” 

“Nobody had site-specific knowledge. Then they say that it will be done in a very scientific manner. Another concern is that there’s no mention about sorting out garbage before sending it here. They will compact the garbage at Kelaniya and then send it via train to Aruwakkalu. According to the Railway Department, the cost of transporting garbage per day is Rs. 925 per km and 26 wagons will be arriving per day. This calculates to about Rs. 4 million per day just for transportation.” 


The LTTE threat was not as bad as the garbage threat – Ujitha Deshapriya

“It’s a poorly planned project. There’s a risk that all garbage would be washed away into the lagoon. This is a waste of money. One day it would be an issue to all surrounding villages. They say this is a scientific solution. We want to know if there’s no technology in UK to dispose their waste. Why are they sending it here and where are we going to dispose it? At the time of the armed conflict we were able to protect this area. We feel that the LTTE threat was less harmful than what we have to face now. The EIA states that there should be no villages within 3 km from the site and that the area should be clear of any water bodies. But there are around seven to eight villages around it and the Serakkuli village is 300 meters away.” 


A specimen of waste would contaminate the water we use – W. Antony

“We have spoken to various media but they have their own agendas. The Ministry has decided to give Samurdhi loans to all villagers and have called for voluntary  teams to chase away the dogs in the area. As you can see the site has attracted many crows. If a crow brings at least a small specimen of clinical waste and drops it in a well, the entire village would be affected. We won’t even be able to identify the illness.”


 The site would attract elephants and be a threat to us – W. N Wasantha

“There’s a crack in my house which cannot be fixed. This is due to limestone quarrying activities. There are several other houses that have been damaged. The soil has been pushed to where it is. Therefore, in the case of a flood, there’s a tendency for this soil to loosen. In that case all garbage will be at the sea. Another issue is the human elephant conflict. There are elephants roaming around and they would come to nearby villages if they can’t find food.” 


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