Inefficiencies in selecting an acceptable landfill site led to garbage continuing to be deposited at the Meethotamulla dumpsite throughout 2015 and 2016 until it collapsed in April this year, documents seen by the Sunday Times reveal. The Treasury allocated four billion rupees in 2015 and 2016 to the Megapolis and Western Development Ministry for a [...]


Meethotamulla dumpsite: Vacillation for two years and Rs. 4 billion unused: Report


Inefficiencies in selecting an acceptable landfill site led to garbage continuing to be deposited at the Meethotamulla dumpsite throughout 2015 and 2016 until it collapsed in April this year, documents seen by the Sunday Times reveal. The Treasury allocated four billion rupees in 2015 and 2016 to the Megapolis and Western Development Ministry for a solid waste management project for Metro Colombo. But the money went unused owing to delays in identifying and completing the preliminaries for an acceptable landfill site, the papers show.

Ganewadiya, a village in Puttalam, was first selected as the location for a sanitary landfill under the previous administration. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and feasibility reports were ready in December 2014. However, the EIA was rejected in January 2016 as Ganewadiya was in the buffer zone of the Wilapattu National Park. The Wildlife Department insisted that the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance did not permit waste dumps in buffer zones—an issue that could have been clarified before the location was chosen and an exhaustive EIA process and feasibility study completed.

The Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management Project (MCSWMP) under the Ministry then took several more months to identify a new site—this time in Aruwakkalu, Puttalam—and carry out fresh studies including an EIA and feasibility assessment. The sanitary landfill, which will receive solid waste from the Colombo metropolis region, is still not ready. But work was finally expedited after the fatal collapse of the Meethotamulla dump.

The documents include a stinging external audit report that reveals the Ministry paid more than 65 million rupees to a Korean engineering design firm called Dohwa Engineering for the feasibility study for waste disposal at Ganewadiya.

A local consultancy firm earned a further 2.9 million rupees for the EIA. The outcomes were not used. The recent audit report, obtained via Finance Ministry sources, states that no practical action was taken in 2015 or 2016 to reduce even a portion of the garbage being deposited at the Meethotamulla dump. It also finds no evidence of efforts to evaluate or implement any proposals that the Western Provincial Council or local authorities such as the Colombo Municipal Council might have had. No attention was given to composting some of the garbage as a short-term solution. While 25 sites had been identified in Colombo and other parts of the Western Province as suitable for solid waste disposal, none of them was used. The locations are listed by name in the audit report.

Significant time was squandered by the Ministry after the Ganewadiya EIA was rejected in applying pressure on the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) to use the same report for the new site at Aruwakkalu. Despite much “back and forth”, the CEA insisted that a new one be carried out. Meanwhile, the management of the limestone mine where the landfill is to be located also changed, necessitating fresh negotiations between the company and the Ministry. “The end result of all these delays and inefficiencies is that the project got pushed back and dumping continued at Meethotamulla,” said an authoritative source, requesting anonymity. “This could have been done much faster and with far more dedication.”

In November 2014, the Management Services Department of the Ministry of Finance granted authority for the MCSWMP to recruit 83 personnel to 22 posts. This was not done even by December 2016, the audit report says. A project director, an accountant and an environmental specialist were taken on acting basis from the Ministry and remunerated with Ministry funds.

The posts were not advertised and there were no interviews, the audit states. The project director wore three hats—as head of the Solid Waste Management Project, of the MCSWMP and as Acting Additional Secretary of the Ministry. A separate account was not maintained, despite money having been allocated to the project. Payments for the above officials were drawn from Ministry funds. The director was remunerated for the first five months despite the project not having got off the ground.

Thirteen months elapsed between the submission of project reports in December 2014 and the rejection of the EIA in January 2016. Action towards finding alternatives to waste disposal at Meethotamulla was thereafter slow and insufficient steps were taken to reduce the quantities being dumped therein, the audit summarises.

Short-term measures to manage solid waste, such as composting, were only taken after the Meethotamulla disaster. However, the relevant project was in existence for two years with sufficient funds allocated to it. The loss of human lives could have been averted.

Project chief says proper plan and timeline now in placeThe total allocation for the Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management Project (MCSWMP)—which dates back to mid-2013—was Rs 14 billion, said Jayavilal Fernando, head of the Megapolis and Western Region Development Ministry’s Solid Waste Management Project. The allocation of Rs 4 billion for 2015 and 2016 was only a part of this fund.

Dr Fernando only took over the MCSWMP and solid waste management in December 2016, before the period covered in the documents seen by the Sunday Times. However, Ministry Secretary Nihal Rupasinghe was unavailable for comment on the issues raised in the documents and questions were directed to Dr Fernando.
The MCSWMP’s Acting Project Director P. Suresh who oversaw activities during the period in question is now with the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms. “Any answers I give you will be secondary and I cannot take responsibility for what I am not aware of,” Dr Fernando said, as a caveat.

The Ministry was unable to use the Rs 2 billion allocation for 2015 because the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Gangewadiya site was rejected. The following year, the relevant stakeholders worked together and identified a new site—Aruwakkalu—which is six kilometres away (as the crow flies) from the Wilpattu National Park. The EIA process for this location started in 2016.

“This being a totally new site, everything had to be done from the beginning including soil tests and geotechnical investigations as well as environmental and social assessments,” Dr Fernando explained. “The whole year went towards finding a new site, starting investigations, carrying out negotiations and finalising the location.”
The Ministry has expedited onsite investigations such as boundary surveying, biodiversity and environmental surveys, ground testing and so on. While feeding information to the EIA report, a conceptual design for the landfill was initiated along with a fresh feasibility study.

Then, the Meethotamulla site collapsed in April 2016. This posed another challenge because the transfer station for garbage in Colombo—where solid waste was to be loaded for transport to Aruwakkalu—was to be located in a section of Meethotamulla. “We then had to find a new loading point in Colombo,” Dr Fernando said. “We had to change our plans from the very beginning.”

Finally, a bare marshland owned by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation in Wanawasala, Kelaniya, was identified in June. It was close to the railway line (the waste is to be transported to Aruwakkalu by train) and also near the road system to facilitate easy access for dump trucks bringing waste from the Colombo suburbs.

The EIA is now with the CEA and the Wayamba Environmental Authority for approval. The surveys are done, as are the conceptual drawings. The bidding process to find a suitable design-and-build contractor for the sanitary landfill is also nearing completion. The Aruwakkalu landfill will be 85 acres and receive around five million cubic metres of waste over eleven years. The first four months will go towards producing a detailed design. Construction will start once the designs are approved by the ministry.

Dr Fernando said he did not know how much was spent on the first feasibility study and EIA. But he said it was to be expected that those reports would be of no use once the site changed. “They had been nearing the end of the old planning process when the CEA rejected the previous site,” he explained.
Regardless of what occurred in the past, the MCSWM now had a proper implementation plan with timelines, Dr Fernando said. And what was initially meant to be a three-year programme has now been shrunk to 18 months after the Meethotamulla collapse—a clear indication of what might have been achieved had the project been prioritised in the first place.

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