Bloemendhal squatters on dangerous slippery ground

Officials raise concern after leakages detected in pipeline from Colombo Port to Kolonnawa storage facility; people say nowhere to go
By Leon Berenger

Authorities yesterday urged thousands of people squatting on top of fuel pipe lines in Bloemendhal, Colombo to vacate the place at the earliest as they could be at risk following the detection of about 13 leaks in the pipeline, senior officials said.

They said a fuel pipe line from the Colombo Port to the Kolonnawa storage facility was found to be leaking in 13 different places, adding that this may only be the tip of the iceberg. Anthony Martin, Deputy Manager Engineering at the Kolonnawa site told the Sunday Times the leaks may have been there for more than 10 years, although it was difficult to say definitely until investigations were completed.
The leaks were detected at the beginning of this week during a routine inspection of the pipe lines that are buried about 1.5 to two metres below the surface.

A section of the damaged pipeline

“The recent deluge may have caused large swathes of earth covering the lines to be washed away exposing the pipe lines and enabling the detection of the leaks,” Mr. Martin said, adding that although the leaks have been plugged temporarily much more had to be done to ensure a hundred per cent safety zone for the thousands of people living there.

“A lighted cigarette end or a single spark in the wrong place could have disastrous consequences and we have educated the area residents of the possible dangers and urged them to leave to safer areas but they refuse to budge, stating they have nowhere to go.

At the moment there are some 420 squatter families living in shanties alongside and in some cases directly on top of the pipe lines and this is a frightening prospect,” Mr. Martin said. While one line carries crude oil the other brings in refined petroleum products such as diesel, petrol, kerosene and A grade aviation fuel, he said.

He added that there was an urgent need to check the other two pipelines, but to do this, the squatters had to first leave the area and this was where the problem lay. Eviction orders on 344 squatter families have been issued by court but the relevant authorities tasked to handle such an exercise are reluctant to do so owing to the human factor, he said.

“However, something has to be done soon as it is a serious problem. We are not talking just about the 400 plus squatters at Bloemendhal but even a large extent of the city dwellers in general,” Mr. Martin warned.

Another factor is that the pipelines are over 50 years old and have outlived their time and corrosion has set in many places. The entire supply line will have to be replaced at the very earliest says the Kolonnawa Operations Manager, T.V. Sarathchandra.

Authorities have already embarked on a US$ 25 million project to instal two new pipelines each covering a stretch of 7.5 kilometres, but the project as been stalled owing to the presence of the squatters.
“To move any further in this project, the squatters have to be relocated and this is a sensitive issue. However, the safety of the city too has to be taken into consideration,” Mr. Sarathchandra said.

Petroleum Resources Minister Susil Premajayantha told the Sunday Times that moves were under way to find alternate housing for the squatters at Bloemendhal and the surrounding areas. He said the safety of the city would be given top priority.

Shanties alongside the pipelines

“I can understand the problem of relocating the people, but we have to attend to the oil leaks so that a bigger population in the city is not exposed to any risks,” he said. He said a majority of the squatters were issued eviction orders nearly a year ago but they have continued to ignore this order to date.
“Area politicians, past and present have to take a large part of the blame because they allowed the squatters to stay on in return for their votes,” he said.

The residents, however, are not in a mood to move - fuel leaks or not. P. Seetha says her family has been residing at Mahawatte for half a century, and this is the only place she calls home.

“The dangers are very real, no doubt about them. At the same time we have no other option. It is either here or the streets, since the authorities have not offered any alternate housing facilities. We are not asking for much but a modest roof above our heads,” the mother of two said.

Her feelings were echoed by fellow resident, 62-year-old Chandrika Podimenike. “This is the only place we know as home. They call us squatters, but this is not so. We get power and water from the national grid, are registered voters and we pay our taxes. So are we any different from other citizens in this country?” Podimenike who has received an evacuation order asks.

“We know the situation is scary after the recent fuel leaks were made known and the authorities have warned us of the dangers. But we are left with little or no option but to stick it out to the end,” 32 year-old H. A. Sudarman, told the Sunday Times.

She added the residents in the area were ready to cooperate with the authorities. “All we ask is alternate accommodation,” she added.

Leak that led to tragedy

At least one person died and four others sustained serious burn injuries in a blaze triggered-off by an oil leak in Mahawatte in the Bloemendhal area late last year, officials said. They said the incident took place late at night after residents in the area were collecting fuel that had filtered into a pond owing to a leak in the pipeline.

The blaze occurred after someone carelessly flung a lighted cigarette end into the pond, the officials said.

GPS eye on fuel transportation

Authorities are to instal Global Positioning Systems (GPS) on bowsers and other vehicles transporting fuel throughout the country in a bid to crack down on pilferage and adulteration of petroleum products.
“At present there is a fleet of some 1,000 plus vehicles transporting fuel and most of them, if not all are involved in various malpractices where they rake in large dividends at the expense of the state and the general public,” Petroleum Minister-Susil Premajayantha told the Sunday Times.

Pix by Ranjith Perera and Saman Kariyawasam

He said the biggest culprits were those who in connivance with errant officials are those operating private vehicles on a contract basis for the Petroleum Corporation.

“The GPS system will enable the authorities to keep track of movements of the vehicles from the time they leave the depot and set out for distribution. Their movements will be monitored from a control room that will operate on a 24-hour basis,” he said.

What is even more worrying, according to Minister Premajayantha is the adulteration of petroleum products that could be costly to consumers as their vehicles are at risk of being ruined. There have been reports of kerosene oil being mixed with high grade petrol before it is sold at filling stations, he added.
He added that there have been several detections and arrests of persons involved in the scam, but it keeps continuing-therefore the need for the GPS system.

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Bloemendhal squatters on dangerous slippery ground


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