Sri Lanka: Shameless Government

 Those genuinely keen on protecting the environment should without further delay launch a project to protect rain forests. The ongoing power cuts have underscored Sri Lanka’s dependence on hydropower. The continuing destruction of forest cover can cause irreparable damage to the country’s hydro power generation capacity, thereby causing a catastrophic situation. 

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Some of those activists at the round-the-clock ‘Go Gota Home’ protest, outside the Presidential Secretariat, at Galle Face, carried placards querying the delay on the part of the government to compensate the communities affected by the sinking of the Singapore registered cargo vessel MV X-Press Pearl, off the Western coast, last year.

The Express Feeders’ owned fire stricken cargo ship, sank on June 02, 2021, during an attempt to tow it away to deep seas. Sri Lanka lacked the wherewithal to bring the fire on deck, that had been reported on May 21, under control. In spite of firefighting support provided by India and other foreign vessels, the vessel went down, causing the worst ever ecological disaster in busy local waters, outside the Colombo harbour.

MV X-Press Pearl sank 9.5 nautical miles, NorthWest of the Colombo port, the day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa directed that it be towed to deeper seas. The vessel went down where it had been since May 19 after entering Sri Lankan waters.

Controversy surrounds the way the relevant authorities probed the circumstances that led to MV X-Press Pearl stealthily carrying a leaking container, loaded with nitric acid, being allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters. The public have a right to know how the government dealt with the vessel’s local Agent, Presidential Award winner Sea Consortium Lanka of Setmil Group, accused of suppressing information about the acid leak.

The highly politically motivated ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign appeared to have attracted many groups, including those handling contentious environmental issues, which may have contributed to the overall deterioration of public confidence in the government. The handling of the X-Press disaster is a glaring example of an utterly corrupt system that protected the affluent at the expense of the hapless public.

The massive eruption of public anger against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the approach to his private residence, at Pangiriwatte Road, Mirihana, on the night of March 31, marked a new phase in politics. Having caused chaos at Pangiriwatte, the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign, overnight, targeted selected government members. Violent protests in several districts, particularly in the Anuradhapura district, underscored the growing public anger at those wielding political power.

At the same time while we do not wish to be paranoid conspiracy theorists, it must be noted that some of the present protests appear to be well coordinated and funded and quite possibly maneuvered by a hidden hand, as happened in the run up to the change of government in 2015, engineered by the US, about which it later crowed about publicly through its then Secretary of State, John Kerry. Though President Gotabaya is responsible for some controversial decisions taken hastily, like the abrupt decision to ban agrochemical imports or doing away with some key taxes no sooner he was elected, it must be stated that none of it was done for his personal benefit, but there has been far too many built up coincidences in the run up to the present conflagration, like the MT New Diamond sinking, X-Press Pearl disaster of epic proportion, the wrong composition of butane and propane in LPG shipped to Sri Lanka that caused needless explosions and even loss of life, etc. In the light of what has happened recently in Pakistan, and elsewhere, we believe the country needs to be extra alert to such foreign engineered plots.

The high profile campaign discarded all political parties, represented in Parliament, thereby denying the Opposition an opportunity to exploit unexpected political developments. The protest campaign that had been launched, opposite the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, received the backing of many groups with diverse objectives. Among the interested parties were civil society organisations, including the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) spearheading an intense legal campaign against the current dispensation.

The CEJ moved court over the X-Press Pearl disaster, in the absence of a genuine effort by relevant government machinery to obtain proper compensation. If those responsible for taking action had addressed the issue purposefully, the sinking of X-Press Pearl wouldn’t have been an issue at the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign.

It would be pertinent to examine the issues at hand against the backdrop of those seeking compensation for MV X-Press Pearl disaster being part of the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign. The current crisis has erupted at an opportune time as cash-strapped Sri Lanka struggles to meet the basic requirements of the public.

The ship disaster, off the Western coast, cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the massive fire onboard MT New Diamond, off the Sangamankanda coast in the East, in early Sept 2020.

The Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) proceedings and an exclusive interview Sirasa anchor Asoka Dias, formerly of Upali Newspapers did with the first Dean of the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology, Ruhuna University, Prof. Ruchira Cumaranatunga exposed the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA).

MEPA and legal system exposed

COPE Chief and MP Prof. Charitha Herath recently lambasted the MEPA, at a recent committee hearing, over the handling of the fire onboard crude carrier MT New Diamond in early Sept. 2020 and the sinking of X-Press Pearl carrying chemicals off the Port of Colombo last year.

Prof. Herath questioned MEPA Chairperson Attorney-at-Law Dharshani Lahandapura, a Viyathmaga activist, as regards their response to the disastrous accidents.

The SLPP National List MP demanded to know why compensation hadn’t been so far secured from the owners of the MT New Diamond. His query was based on the Auditor General’s observations. Jagath Gunasekera, the Acting General Manager of MEPA, said that the court had decided on the fines to be imposed.

Prof. Herath asked why only Rs 51 mn out of estimated Rs 3,480 million, due from MT New Diamond as compensation, had been received. Attorney-at-Law Lahandapura said that though there had been an oil patch, the fire had not caused any environmental damage.

Prof. Herath asked why such a huge estimate in respect of damages had been made if no disaster had occurred. Gunasekera said Rs 51 million had been paid for firefighting operations and related matters.

According to Gunasekera an expert panel had recommended Rs 3,480 mn compensation and the relevant file had been submitted to the Attorney General’s Department.

Prof. Herath pointed out that the AG hadn’t responded to the MEPA so far, and asked what the MEPA would say if the COPE alleged that it had collaborated with the ship owners to help them reduce compensation payments for environmental damages caused.

When the COPE Chief questioned the role of MEPA’s Legal Officer in respect of the overall response, the MEPA representative at the hearing disclosed that she had been sidelined. The official revealed she hadn’t been allowed to participate in any of the discussions with the Attorney General’s Department on civil or criminal proceedings. Prof. Herath demanded to know why she had been sidelined. Lahandapura claimed that MEPA had assigned responsibilities to another official as the Legal Officer was not responsive to the MEPA’s requirements. Prof. Herath dismissed that claim, insisting that there couldn’t be a justifiable excuse for sidelining the legal officer.

Prof. Herath emphasised that the revelation that the MT New Diamond matter issue had been handled outside the purview of the MEPA Legal Section was a serious matter.

Prof. Herath pointed out that though the compensation in respect of X-Press Pearl had been estimated at USD 37 mn, the ship owners had agreed to pay only USD 2.9 mn. Lahandapura admitted that an organisation that had represented the ship owners/insurers had provided advice to MEPA, too. The COPE Chairman pointed out that the organisation concerned would have been able to manipulate the whole process to the advantage of the ship owners/insurers. The MP said that someone could easily level the charge that the MEPA collaborated with them to reduce the amount of compensation received by the country.

Sirasa interview

Prof. Cumaranatunga didn’t mince her words when she questioned the conduct of MEPA Chairperson as regards the two incidents – the one off the Sangamankanda coast and the other off the Colombo harbour. Responding to interviewer Dias, the academic, who investigated both high profile cases, accused Lahandapura of suppressing some sections of the report on MT New Diamond submitted by her team. She pointed out how the MEPA Chief claimed before the COPE that damages hadn’t been caused to marine life, contrary to the report submitted by the experts. An irate Prof. Cumaranatunga declared that MEPA Chief had insulted members of her team by propagating blatant lies. Asoka Dias couldn’t have conducted that interview at a better time. With the growing public protests, demanding a system change, the operation at the MEPA explains how interested parties pursued projects beneficial to them, regardless of the consequences. Prof. Herath should ask Prof. Cumaranatunga to make her position clear before his Committee and take whatever necessary action. The government cannot remain silent against the backdrop of the head of the expert team that probed the ship disasters, exposing MEPA.

Prof. Cumaranatunga revealed how she raised the issues at hand with Lahandapura soon after the COPE rapped MEPA over the controversial handling of the ship disasters. Declaring that Lahandapura’s response to her queries hadn’t been satisfactory, the academic exposed how MEPA manipulated the online process adopted in preparing the final report to secure the signatures of the members of the probe team without providing them the final draft.

The COPE and Sirasa revelations haven’t received sufficient public attention. The ruling coalition and the Opposition haven’t acted on sensational revelations made by the COPE as well as two other watchdog committees, namely the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Finance (COPF). MEPA should be held accountable for mishandling of two key investigations. Had they been deliberately handling the issues in a way to deprive the country adequate compensation?

Prof. Herath is in no mood to give up his strong stand in respect of the two

muddled investigations. The COPE should pursue this matter. The X-Press Pearl matter is now before the judiciary. It would be the responsibility of all concerned to ensure transparent proceedings. Punitive measures are a prerequisite for justifiable settlement of the X-Press Pearl case.

CEJ moves court

The CEJ and three others, including its Senior Advisor Hemantha Withanage, in a fundamental rights application filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution, in respect of the X-Press Pearl affair, has named its owner Express Feeders and its local agent Sea Consortium Lanka as 11th and 12th respondents, respectively. They are among 13 respondents, including the Attorney General.

At the time the CEJ moved SC against what the petition called the worst marine ecological disaster caused by the sinking of X-Press Pearl, the outfit hadn’t been aware of the local agent deleting e-mails received from the Captain of the ship.

According to the petition, in addition to 325 metric tonnes of bunker oil, the vessel carried altogether 1,486 containers – 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid, caustic soda, sodium methylate, plastic, lead ingots, lubricant oil, quick lime and highly reactive and inflammable chemicals such as Sodium Methoxide, High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) “Lotrene”, Vinyl Acetate, Methanol, bright yellow sulphur, urea, cosmetics, etc.

Petitioners stated that the Captain and the crew members of the MV X-Press Pearl knew of the nitric acid leak from about 11th May 2021, nine days before the blaze started and had deliberately failed to inform the Sri Lankan authorities of the impending grave risk. But, the CEJ had been in the dark regarding the treacherous actions of the local agent and the whole issue would take an unexpected turn against the backdrop of Prof. Cumaranatunga’s revelations.

The CEJ receives funding from both local and foreign sources, including the UN. Responding to The Island queries, Withanage explained the gradual growth of CEJ’s operations since its launch in 2004 following the breakup of the Environmental Foundation Ltd. Assuring transparency in the CEJ’s operations, Withanage alleged that the state agencies that had been tasked to protect the environment either connived brazenly with some of the corrupt elements who wielded political power regardless of the consequences or betrayed the country’s interest for personal gain. The sordid disclosures made during COPE proceedings and the Sirasa interview as regards the sordid behaviour of MEPA, responsible for the protection of marine environment should prompt the government to take tangible measures.

Unfortunately, MEPA as well as other agencies answerable for matters concerning the environment, are pursuing strategies acceptable to their political masters.

The much discussed court cases pertaining to clearing of Wilpattu jungles, releasing of elephants and the threat to Sinharaja forest exposed the corrupt political party system.

Withanage asserted that political parties exploited corrupt systems in place to raise funds. If those who exercised political authority addressed matters of serious concern there wouldn’t have been a need for CEJ to move the Supreme Court over the X-Press Pearl disaster. Withanage questioned the conduct of the premier government agency, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) now headed by ex-JVPer Siripala Amarasinghe. Withanage asserted that politicians and officials were equally responsible for the pathetic state of affairs.

There cannot be a better example than the importing of toxic garbage containers from the UK and simply dumping them here during the yahapalana administration. While Amarasinghe and then President and former Environment Minister Sirisena claimed at the time they were tackling the issue expeditiously, if not for the CEJ successfully moving the court, the British garbage would have been here still. Having blamed the Mahinda Rajapaksa tenure for large-scale environmental destruction, Withanage alleged that the current dispensation was the worst. The civil society activist cited the removal of restrictions on the mining and the transport of sand as one of the evil decisions taken by the current government. The move was obviously meant to allow those connected with the party to make money. The relevant authorities fully cooperated with politicians, Withanage alleged.

The court was told between 2017 and 2019, the UK shipped 263 containers of waste to Sri Lanka. The containers were labelled ‘used mattresses, carpets and rugs.’ But, amongst other things, authorities found bio waste from hospitals. It included radioactive clinical waste, rags, bandages and body parts from mortuaries. Thanks to CEJ’s action, the entire lot – altogether 263 containers – were shipped back by February 2021. It would be pertinent to examine the conduct of the environment ministry and the CEA with regard to the import of British waste. Contrary to expectations, the current dispensation didn’t take punitive measures against those responsible for the importing of dangerous cargo and kept them in specified areas pending disposal.

The government should be ashamed of its failure. The Parliament, too, should inquire into such glaring failures. Can those in authority now and then vouch that foreign waste didn’t end up at Aruwakkalu sanitary garbage dump in Puttalam as once alleged by top environmental scientist Dr. Ajantha Perera in an interview with this newspaper?

One-time top trade official Gomi Senadhira recently discussed how in spite of Sri Lanka’s success in sending back over 3,000 tons of British toxic waste, authorities allowed foreign garbage. Senadhira asked whether the Customs, Trade Ministry, the BOI, and the CEA deceived the public on garbage imports.

Senadhira raised two basic issues (verbatim) (a) How did the Customs detect the 3000 tonnes of “illegally imported foreign garbage”? Wasn’t it only when the containers that remained in the port for months without being cleared by the importer started to stink and leak? When were the tonnes of customs-cleared garbage in a clandestine garbage dump created inside the BOI discovered by the BOI and the CEA?

Wasn’t it only after a media exposure? Didn’t all this happen after the implosion of the Meethotamulla garbage dump? Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Methotamulla collapsed at the start of the yahapalana regime.

(b).During the four-year period 2017-2020, while struggling to ship back 3,000 tons of illegally imported stinking waste, the customs and the CEA had facilitated “legal” imports of a much larger quantity of garbage into the country. For example; Sri Lanka imported nearly 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste (HS391590) In addition, nearly 1000 MTs of plastic waste under HS 391530 was also imported every year.

Most of it, according to customs data, was imported from China. As far as I am aware, China does not export plastic waste”

Perhaps, the CEJ should speak with Senadhira to map out proper strategy to counter clandestine projects. Interested parties must have profited immensely at Sri Lanka’s expense.

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