A report commissioned by the Central Environment Authority (CEA) on the total bill for the clean-up of Coca Cola’s diesel oil spill into the water supply is due next week and the CEA warns it is prepared to go to court to extract compensation estimated to be up to Rs. 1 billion. “A survey is [...]


CEA prepared to eyeball Coca Cola on clean-up bill

By Aanya Wipulasena

A report commissioned by the Central Environment Authority (CEA) on the total bill for the clean-up of Coca Cola’s diesel oil spill into the water supply is due next week and the CEA warns it is prepared to go to court to extract compensation estimated to be up to Rs. 1 billion.

CEA Chairman Prof. Lal Dharmasiri

“A survey is currently being undertaken by an academic of the Sri Jayawardenapura University to calculate the total expenditure and loss the NWSDB bore. This report will be ready by next week,” CEA Chairman Prof. Lal Dharmasiri said, adding that if Coca Cola disputed the report it would have to fund a “full investigation”. If disagreement persisted, the CEA would take the case to court.

Under fire for its decision to reactivate polluter Coca Cola’s Environmental Protection Licence (EPL), the CEA has begun a two-week operation to scour the Kelani for industrial pollution.

After about 1900 litres of diesel oil leaked from a pipe at Coca Cola Beverages Sri Lanka Limited into the Kelani River on August 17, contaminating the public drinking water supply, the CEA suspended the company’s environmental licence, which it needs in order to operate.

Colombo and the surrounding areas had their water supply cut as government agencies worked to remove the leaked oil from the supply line. On Monday, the authority granted Coca Cola’s request to revoke the suspension, prompting a public outcry on social media and elsewhere.

Critics pointed out that diesel oil had resurfaced in the water supply on August 28 when residual leaked oil was washed back into the river after heavy rains, resulting in another water cut while the authorities worked again to clean the Kelani. The water cuts affected residents in Colombo, Dehiwala, Mount Lavinia and Kotte.

The initial leak came to light after Colombo residents contacted the water board to complain of a strange smell and oil in their water. The board took immediate action to halt supply from its Ambatale treatment plant while its officials joined with the CEA and Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) to sponge the oil off the river and flush away contaminated water from the Laxapana reservoir.

After the second clean-up, water board chairman Kuddoos Alahudeen Ansar gave a guarantee that the leaked diesel oil would not cause another water cut. This week, the environmental authority deployed more than 25 officials in a two-week programme to inspect the Kelani River from Avissawella to the Ambatale water treatment plant. This stretch of the river runs through a heavily industrialised area.

The authority defended the restoration of Coca Cola’s licence.“CEA officials inspected the factory before we took the decision of revoking the suspension,” Prof. Dharmasiri said. He said the law allowed the company to request the revoking of the licence suspension while guaranteeing that necessary action had been taken to resolve the original fault.

The licence was introduced to “control discharge of effluents, deposition of waste, emission of smoke, gases, fumes, vapour or excessive noise, vibration into the environment by certain activities” after Sri Lanka moved from an agriculture-based to industrial economy in the 1980s. In case of a suspension of a licence, “if its holder takes action to meet the standards then the suspended EPL can be reactivated again”, CEA regulations state.

In a faxed document to the CEA by the Managing Director of Coca Cola Beverages Sri Lanka (CCBSL) Ltd Kapila Welmillage appealed to the CEA to lift the suspension of its licence, stating: “We hereby assure you that there are no by-pass lines from our factory. The only discharges from the plant are storm water and treated effluent water. We also hereby confirm that our treated waste water discharge to the river is conforming to all applicable guidelines and regulations framed under the National Environment Act No. 47 of 1980.”

The company did not respond to the Sunday Times requests for an interview, instead forwarding this prepared statement: “In the early hours of 17th August, our staff noticed a leakage of diesel from a fuel pipeline located within the company’s premises. The leak was plugged immediately by the staff on night duty. However, by the time this leak was plugged, some amount of oil had escaped into the nearby water body, through the storm water drainage system of the company.”

Coca Cola further states that corrective and preventive measures were implemented, and exhaustive preventive action taken to avoid a reoccurrence. The company has reimbursed the expenses incurred by the Marine Environment Protection Authority for clean-up operations. According to reports, the authority had requested Rs. 177,000 and a separate Rs. 1.45 million for paying a company to clean up the river.

Additionally the water board has demanded Rs. 132m for damage to its machinery but total losses are still being analysed by experts, the CEA chairman said. The CEA chairman said that the total amount of compensation Coca Cola faced paying to all state enterprises involved in the clean-up would be around Rs. 1 billion.

He added that the restoration of the company’s environmental licence was temporary. “We are awaiting an analytical report from them with proper mitigation plans. Their EPL will expire soon and we will need this report to reissue the licence,” he said.
He said officials investigating Kelani River pollution would be engaged on the project for two weeks and the CEA would take action to prosecute offenders.

Meanwhile the water board’s Deputy General Manager, Western Production, Ranjith Perera, said he was awaiting results from the test samples sent to Indian laboratories to examine what chemicals were in the water supply following the leak.
This incident has led to residents losing faith in the water supplied by NWSDB. Many said they were opting to purchase bottled drinking water and use mains water only for washing.

Who owns the rivers?
There is a void in the monitoring of the Kelani River. Hemantha Vithanage, director and senior environmental scientist at the Centre for Environmental Justice, identifies this void as a lack of “ownership of the river”.

The river is heavily polluted with mercury used to separate gold during the rush for the precious metal in 2012, effluent released from industries and toilet discharge from houses along the river, Mr. Vithanage said, adding that the situation is set to worsen.
“There is no owner for any river in Sri Lanka. The CEA can only regulate pollution through the Environment Protection Licence but this is not enough,” he said. The government attempted to introduce a River Basin Protection Committee but there is still no regulating body for this.

While compensation is being demanded by several government institutions for the diesel oil leak no one looked at the damage caused to the river and its biodiversity.

“This is a matter we have to take seriously. If not, in 10 to 20 years the river will be heavily polluted beyond restoration,” he said.


Water treatment plant helpless against grease and oil
Water treatment plants of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) are not equipped to treat grease and oil, the board’s Deputy General Manager based at the Ambatale water treatment plant, Ranjith Perera, revealed.
This was why residents in Colombo and suburbs found oil in their water following the diesel leak at Coca Cola Beverages Sri Lanka Ltd in Biyagama last month, Mr. Perera said.

The board is trying to rectify this shortcoming so that a similar incident would not occur, he said.
The Kelani is the main source of drinking water for a larger part of Colombo’s population. Yet, over the years the river has been exposed to severe pollution from illegal mining to affluent discharge from industries located in close proximity to it.

A report by the Central Environment Authority (CEA) published on its own website draws attention to the issue. “The Kelani River, having a total length of 145km and 2292sq km of river basin is the second largest watershed and it is the most polluted river in Sri Lanka due to the rapid growth of industries located in the close vicinity of the river and [the fact that it] passes through the country’s most populated capital city,” it states.The report says the main sources of river pollution are the “land-based sources such as treated and untreated industrial effluents, agricultural runoff, domestic and municipal effluents”.

It says the Kelani, which meets part of the demand for pipe-borne water, is exposed to “sewage from low-income settlements, and industrial effluents (especially from tanning and metal finishing and processing industries) from a large number of industries are discharged conveniently into the Kelani River”.

There are more than 60 industries located by the river and at the Board of Investment Zone, including at least nine rubber glove and protective wear manufacturing companies, six tyre manufactures and a large number of laundries and chemical manufacturers.

Federation of Environment Organisations Coordinator Prof. Praveen Abhayaratne said effluents from these industries ultimately reach the Kelani. He questioned the cleanliness of Colombo’s drinking water. “When treating the water only the basic physical parameters are met but the water is not tested for specific pollutants,” Prof. Abhayaratne said adding, “We still do not know the contamination levels in the water we drink.”

This is because Sri Lanka lacks facilities to clean the water. “The main water treatment plant is not able to say what the pollutants are and there is no mechanism to treat it so it becomes that much more important for authorities concerned to regulate and monitor the industries upstream to prevent an incident like this from happening again,” he added.

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