17th October 1999

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Like in the American X Files strange things happen around the IBB installations in Iranawila. Lightning strikes frequently. Animals 'just die'. Radios and TV sets go berserk with strange broadcasts. People in the area live in fear.

What is out there?

By Hiranthi Fernando

The antennae are blamed for the mishapsThe Voice of America (VOA) Relay Station in Iranawila is once again the subject of controversy. While Madampe's villagers are up in arms over the recent burying of a large quantity of possibly hazardous waste in their neighbourhood, at Iranwila too, the villagers have many complaints. They are beset with increasing fears that the station, when in full operation, would pose great danger to them.

Saman Priyashantha lives close to the gates of VOA, now designated the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). He says that recently, there has been a tendency for lightning to strike somewhere in the village even with a normal shower. "One morning, when there was a loud burst of thunder, the goat I had tied to a coconut tree close to an outdoor lavatory, was struck by lightning and fell dead. The lightning then struck a coconut tree seven to eight feet away."

Saman's neighbour in the house opposite asleep on a mat, had his pillow burned by the next bolt of lightning. He had to be treated at the Chilaw Hospital, and soon after the family sold their house and moved away.

"Earlier, during a thunderstorm, lightning used to strike the tops of the coconut trees," Saman said. "Now it strikes much lower. We think that the antennae towers of VOA, attract the lightning and instead of conducting it down to the earth, seem to throw it out from about 7 to 8 feet above the ground." Saman also complained that when the VOA station tested their antennae, he was unable to watch TV or listen to the radio. "I first realised something was wrong when I tried to tune in to watch a cricket match. I could not get the channel. Later I learned that the antennae had been tested that day," he said.

"At present they are still testing two or three antennae at a time. I dread to think what would happen when all are functioning." Another villager from Iranawila, who preferred not to be named confirmed that he had the same problem with his TV and radio. "The TV screen has lines across it and when we tune in to a Sinhala channel on radio, we hear different broadcasts in English at the times the antennae are tested. We also find that birds like parrots, crows and mynahs fall dead in our compound sometimes."

"One day, we saw about twenty crows on the ground, over a short distance. We first thought they had been poisoned.When we examined them we found that their feet were shrivelled up," he said. Sunil (not his name) has worked in every section of the VOA station before his service was discontinued. He explained that each antennae is fixed between two tall towers. There are fifteen such antennae. At a distance of 70 metres from the antennae, warning boards have been put up. The antennae face north, west and east. There are no antennae facing the side of the building.

Sunil said there were four transmitters and two more to be installed. "One day four other workers and I were working at the Switch Metrix during the testing of transmission. Our job was to detect faults.We were looking up when we noticed sparking at the insulations. I immediately jumped over the crossbars. One worker kept his hand on the crossbars while jumping over. His hand was burned. After that, safety precautions were increased. We have been told by the engineer to take care not to go under the antennae because it could result in various health problems."

"While transmitting, we have seen the way crows and other birds die," Sunil said. "There are two cables to each net. Birds perch on the cables and fall dead. Sometimes their legs are dismembered."

A priest at Iranawila related how during a church feast, the amplifier had suddenly stopped.

"A loud disturbance was heard and some other broadcast was amplified. A technician from the VOA, replaced some parts in the outputs. When he held the microphone up in the air, sounds from the VOA transmission came across. When a tester was held up the light came on," he said. W.H. Arthur Fernando, a retired fisherman from Iranawila had been actively involved in the protests against VOA since 1984. Having shared the villagers' experiences, he says some were afraid to complain for fear of police harassment.

Samson, another villager from Iranawila who initially opposed the protests has now changed his stance. "When they started this we were not told of the dangers from rays," Samson said. "When birds sit on the cables, they get grilled or their legs get burned off. When all the antennae are functioning we do not know what will happen." According to Samson, a broad concrete wall is being constructed around the office building. About 40 lorries of concrete stones are being brought daily to the site.

Back at the dumping site in Madampe, people living behind the temple premises complain of hoarse throats, tearing, scratching and wounds in the ear. "We are afraid that our wells would be contaminated by toxic substances," one neighbour said. Another had pleaded with the priest in the temple to stop the dumping as his two children had developed asthmatic conditions.

Ven. Uraliya Wimalawansa, the monk at the Thinipiti Viharaya, where the waste was dumped however, denies all allegations. The burying of waste from the VOA had been going on for about 21/2 years, he said. Often, people come and take away what is discarded. On the last occasion, there were about eight lorry loads. It was mostly ceiling materials. Nobody got sick and no animals died, he said. According to the monk, it is a political problem. People in the village are with the PA and are against him because he is with the opposition, he says.

According to a worker who helped to transport the waste, it consisted mostly of material from a building that had got burned two years ago. It had been stored in two containers. Eight to ten lorry loads were taken to the dump. He said they wore their normal work clothes and gloves to handle the waste.

Grama Sevaka A.M. Ariyawansa said that about four dead dogs were put into the pit and buried. He also helped to burn one dog that had died by the temple gate. When Ariyawansa who lives close to the temple, went to the site, he saw the pit filled with bags. He informed the relevant officials and a police entry was made. The villagers sent a petition to Colombo, which was subsequently directed to the Wayamba Provincial Council.

According to Mr. Ariyawansa, if the buried waste is found to be toxic, the environmental authorities of the Provincial Council have said that three feet of earth will be removed from the dump site and replaced with fresh earth. In this controversy between the VOA station at Iranawila and the people of the area, many questions spring to mind. Is it normal for a radio relay station to cause these effects? Is the equipment malfunctioning? What are the real dangers to the people in the area when the station becomes operational?

Why cannot the waste material be buried within the premises of the VOA? Whatever the answers, it is evident that the villagers of both Iranawila and Madampe have genuine fears.

It is the responsibility of the Government and authorities concerned to carry out an unbiased investigation and dispel these fears.

It could happen anywhere

Construction Manager of VOA, Mr. Neil Crenshaw, says that short wave transmitters could interfere with radio, TV and public address systems, depending on the wiring of the house and the equipment.

This, he says, is typical of all radio stations. "But we can solve these problems for the people," Mr. Crenshaw said. "We have to run the transmitters and get feedback from the villagers about the problems they have with their equipment."

"Our technicians can sort it out. We would like those who have such problems to let us know by letter, by telephone ( 032-55931) or by coming to the gate.

Every home is different. Once our transmitters are operating we will send our technicians out from house to house to attend to these problems." Mr. Crenshaw said if one goes too close to the antennae, there would be danger, but not if an adequate distance is kept.

"We have done computer studies on the danger zones and have posted boards warning people to keep away," he said. "Once we power up the transmitter, we measure the field strength. We have found that the boards are well outside the safety line.

On the issue of lightning, Mr. Crenshaw said that lightning striking the tower does not go beyond the immediate tower area.

The towers actually act like a lightning rod and keep the lightning away from other targets. The antennae are heavily protected and all lightning that strikes is directed to the ground.

"Nothing that we know suggests that the antennae have any effects on lightning," he said.

Birds perching on the wires leading to the antennae, would be killed or burned because these wires conduct radio frequency. These are called feeder lines. Electricity and radio are similar but have different frequencies.

The same thing happens when a bird touches two electric wires. However, he said that the birds usually learn to avoid these wires.

"This happens in any radio facility throughout the world," Mr. Crenshaw said. Commenting on the disposal of waste, Mr Crenshaw said they had contacted the Central Environment Authority to find a licensed landfill and had been informed there was no such facility in the country.

They had also been told that a permit was not necessary for the disposal of garbage as long as it was properly buried.

Mr.Crenshaw said the contractor Marconi Communications had negotiated with the monk and seen to it that the garbage was buried according to international practice, under the supervision of their safety/environmental engineer. It was not harmful to people, animals or the environment, he said.

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