Smoke from factories in the Muthurajawela area is causing a serious pollution problem. Thick clouds of fog often descend on the residential areas. Residents complain of respiratory problems, and say they are forced to keep doors and windows shut tight to keep out the foul air.
Fr. Ivan Peters, parish priest of St. Mary’s Church, Uswetakeiyawa, is concerned about the factories’ waste disposal methods and the impact on residential areas and the Muthurajawela Environmental Protection Area.
“There is also a proposal to recycle garbage from Colombo,” he said. “ I can’t understand why they want to bring garbage from Colombo here, where the environment is already so sensitive.”
Fr. Peters says dengue is also prevalent in the area, especially among children.
Stanley Norbert, principal of St. Mary’s Maha Vidyalaya, says the situation in Muthurajawela is a good example of how the authorities take advantage of peaceful passive, communities that are not likely to make a fuss.
“Government institutions and foreign companies use this land most irresponsibly,” Principal Norbert says. “Garbage disposal, the setting up factories and the installation of communication towers – all this done without consulting the residents.”
Mr. Norbert said factories release pollutants into the air and waste water into the ground, polluting the environment. Much of the ground water is unsuitable for use.
Ashan Ramesh, 18 years, is an Advanced Level student at St. Mary’s Maha Vidyalaya. He lives with his parents and younger brother in a house close to a palm oil factory that has come up next to the Muthurajawela protected zone. He says his family lives in constant discomfort because of the noise from the factory generators and the thick smoke emissions from the plant.
Five months ago, Muthurajawela residents set up the Mehewara Society, an independent environmental group that monitors factory activity in the area and the impact on their environment.
Society member H. M. D. P. Sudharshana says that some of the factories have Board of Investment approval and have been in operation for more than five years. He says these factories dispose of their toxic waste into the protected zone.
Standing on a hill of garbage, Mr. Sudharshana told the Sunday Times that irresponsible dumping of refuse was another serious problem. Mountains of plastic bags and rubber tyres are stacking up on a cleared plot of land. Some of the refuse has entered an adjacent canal and is clinging to mangroves bordering the canal banks.
The Mehewara Society has joined forces with the Sri Lanka Nature Forum (SLNF) and they plan to take the matter up with the Central Environmental Authority (CEA).
Earlier, the Sri Lanka Nature Forum was successful in stopping the clearing of mangroves in the Muthurajawela sanctuary area, following numerous complaints to the Central Environmental Authority.
An official at one of factories told the Sunday Times that the owners had obtained full approval from the Board of Investment before setting up the factory. He said the factory management has had no complaints from residents about pollution and emissions, and that the factory has a good relationship with the local community.
“We engage in community activities and we provide employment to people of the area. They have not voiced any complaints about our operations,” the spokesman said.
The factory disposes of its waste on its own property. However, the property borders the Muthurajawela sanctuary.
Apart from obtaining Board of Investment approval, any factory or business intending to set up operations near the protected zone must also get approval from Central Environmental Authority. The CEA issues an Environment Protection Licence (EPL) after studying the potential impact the factory or businesses may have on the environment. This is followed by an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report. It is only then that a decision is made whether to allow the factory to set up operations. Without such approval, no business can legally operate within the Muthurajawela zone.
The factory official claimed the company had received the CEA approval in 2005. This was confirmed by the CEA, which revealed that several factories had obtained licences for their operations.
Central Environmental Authority chairman Charitha Herath told the Sunday Times that licences granted after a careful assessment of the companies’ activities to determine any environmental implications. Waste disposal methods are a crucial part of the assessment, he sad.
Under the National Environmental Act, No. 47 of 1980, guidelines have been laid down for any business to operate within the Muthurajawela Environmental Protection Area; harm to the environment or the eco-system is the prime concern.
Though situated outside the protected buffer zone, some factories continue to discharge toxic waste and toxic emissions.