A number of government authorities and their senior-most officials were aware of the imminent danger posed by the Meethotamulla garbage dump, to area residents, but through their negligence, they failed to take whatever immediate steps necessary to avert the imminent disaster, states the one-man Presidential Committee chaired by Retired Appeal Court Judge Dr Chandradasa Nanayakkara, [...]


Officialdom’s dereliction of duty caused avoidable disaster: Report

Probe on Meethotamulla Garbage Dump Collapse

A number of government authorities and their senior-most officials were aware of the imminent danger posed by the Meethotamulla garbage dump, to area residents, but through their negligence, they failed to take whatever immediate steps necessary to avert the imminent disaster, states the one-man Presidential Committee chaired by Retired Appeal Court Judge Dr Chandradasa Nanayakkara, appointed to probe the Meethotamulla tragedy.

Meethotamulla last year: Clearing up operations following the collapse of the mountain of garbage. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Following are the findings of the Committee:

Senior officials of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), the Kolonnawa Divisional Secretariat and the Western Province Solid Waste Management Authority (WPSWMA) were well aware of the danger posed by continued dumping of garbage at the site, and had ample time to avert the disaster which occurred on April 14, 2017. More than 30 people died that day when the garbage dump collapsed on them, whilst most were celebrating the Sinhala and Hindu New Year.

The controversy surrounding the dump site had led to protests and actions by civil society organisations, creating a dialogue surrounding the issue, within society.

This had led to the matter being given extensive coverage in the media.

In such a scenario, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) had a legal obligation to intervene, to identify the danger posed by this site and the solutions that could have been effected. The two agencies failed in their legal obligations in this matter.

Dumping of garbage had initially begun at the site in 2009. At that stage, garbage was only being dumped over a 2-acre area. By 2017, however, this had expanded into an area of 18 acres. At the time of its collapse, the dump was almost 150 feet high.

CMC Commissioner V.K. Anura and Kolonnawa Divisional Secretary (DS) Sugath Sisira Kumara are named for not taking necessary steps, despite possessing prior knowledge of the danger.

Mr Anura was last week removed as CMC Commissioner, by WP Governor K.C. Logeswaran, based on recommendations made in the Committee’s report.

On April 7, 2017, the Kolonnawa DS had issued evacuation notices to 8 households in the vicinity of the Meethotamulla garbage dump, through the area Grama Niladhari, following a site inspection. The inspection had been conducted following a report made by the Grama Niladhari, regarding changes to the physical characteristics of the ground in the area. This was a full 7 days before the disaster struck. There was ample time between April 7 and April 14, the day of the disaster, for the DS, as the government’s topmost official in the area, to take appropriate steps to identify the danger posed to the vicinity, and to initiate steps to determine technical solutions. This had not been done. Meanwhile, the CMC, which managed the site, even after being notified by the Kolonnawa DS regarding the notice issued to the residents, had continued its practice of awarding Rs 15,000 for each household willing to relocate from the area, but not taken any measures beyond that.

During the period between April 7-14, when continued dumping of garbage at the site was resulting in visible changes to the ground’s physical characteristics and, whilst buildings were developing cracks, no government official had attempted to intervene and immediately evacuate the area residents.

Aside from the CMC Commissioner and the Kolonnawa DS, the CMC, Kolonnawa Urban Council, DMC, WPSWMA, and CEA failed to properly regulate the dumping of garbage at the site, thereby being remiss in their duties vested with these authorities.

Several warnings regarding the danger had been ignored over the years. Garbage had been dumped at the site from 2009, but danger signs had started to appear as far back as 2013, with the area being designated a potential disaster zone. A circumference of 200 metres from the dump’s centre had later been designated as a danger zone. On June 13, 2016, the WPSWMA presented a report at a meeting attended by representatives of the CMC, Urban Development Authority (UDA) the CEA and others, recommending short term and long term measures to manage the dump site properly. The CMC did not implement any of these recommendations.

About 850 metric tonnes of garbage were dumped daily at the site, by the CMC. The Kolonnawa UC too had been dumping at the site. Private companies and individuals had also been dumping garbage at Meethotamulla, and earned undue profits. This practice had been facilitated by the CMC’s irregular management of the site.

Given this situation, there are enough grounds to determine that between 200 to 300 metric tonnes of additional waste was being illicitly dumped daily at the site.

On the intervention of the CEA, the Government had spent almost Rs 90 million on a project to produce compost from biodegradable waste brought to the site.

This project was never implemented and, due to the irregular waste disposal of the CMC, the project’s buildings and equipment now lie buried under garbage.

As for the tender to award waste management within the CMC limits, to outside parties, since 2011, parties with locations for waste disposal, had bid for this tender from time to time. The relevant technical committees which assessed these bids, had also recommended they were suitable. However, the CMC had continually decided to reject these bids, and award the tender to parties who dumped garbage at the Meethotamulla site.

Had the tender been awarded to bidders who had disposal sites of their own, it would have controlled / minimised the garbage sent to Meethotamulla. But the CMC had chosen to disregard all such bids.

“Given all these facts, it is the determination of the Committee that the CMC had ample opportunity to implement a programme which would have prevented garbage from piling up at Meethotamulla, and prevent the disaster,” the Report concludes.

CMC stinks of waste
Among the many issues concerning Meethotamulla are the alleged steps taken by the then CMC Commissioner and senior officials, to abuse their powers regarding many decisions taken about the dump site.

One such example is an alleged attempt to procure an odour control chemical to control the smell that emanated from the garbage dump site. On March 13, 2017, a month before the Meethotamulla dump collapsed, a company named United Glass Lanka (Pvt) Ltd (UGLPL), based in Nugegoda, had approached the CMC with a proposal to use their product Rydall OE to control the odour from the dump. The Director of the CMC’s Waste Management Division had presented the project proposal to the CMC’s Finance Committee.

UGLPL had allegedly cited the names and contact numbers of 4 University lecturers as recognised experts in this field, who can be contacted to vouch for the efficacy of the product.

The Sunday Times is in possession of an internal document signed by CMC Treasurer K.D. Chitrapala, which notes that, when he contacted the lecturers, they had all stated they were unaware of such a product and had not endorsed it, nor given permission to UGLPL to use their names in the proposal.

The CMC Treasurer had also observed that, UGLPL had stated in its proposal, that it was up to the user to determine the suitability of the product and that, UGLPL would not take any responsibility for it. As such, he had recommended the proposal be rejected on the grounds that UGLPL had provided false information.

UGLPL, however, had written to the CMC Commissioner on March 23, 2017, withdrawing its proposal on ‘ethical grounds’. Nevertheless, the CMC’s Finance Committee had still decided on March 28, 2017, to call for tenders to purchase the product.

On April 25, 2017, soon after the dump’s collapse, the proposal had been taken up again by the Director of the Waste Management Division and the CMC Commissioner, claiming that, both the President and Prime Minister were making inquiries about the product. Again, it had been decided to purchase the product from UGLPL. The Commissioner had allegedly overruled the Treasurer’s protests. Nevertheless, the product had not been purchased.

Meanwhile, the Chief Accountant (Procurement) had subsequently purchased the product from UGLPL, in clear violation of government procurement guidelines. At that stage, UGLPL was not even a registered supplier with the CMC, the document claims.

When contacted, UGLPL Managing Director Bandara J. Batuwewegedara, acknowledged they had initially made an unsolicited proposal and used the names of the lecturers in their original proposal without their consent, but insisted that UGLPL had only stated that the CMC could utilise their knowledge to get an independent opinion on the product’s effectiveness.

He further claimed the product had been successfully used at several dump sites, including the Balangoda Urban Council and at the Karadiyana dump.

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