Fuel Oil and Grease, “FOG” halted supply of drinking water to people in Chunnkam and its neighbourhood the past three years and the exact source of water contamination has been made a mystery, due to mishandling of this manmade disaster by the authorities from top to bottom. They have failed to take appropriate action in spite of protest from the effected people. Suspected offenders have denied allegations made against them stating these charges are baseless, made easy for them by highly mixed professional bodies chosen to look into the matter. As a temporary measure the local authority Uduvil Pradeshiya Sabah is supplying drinking water to the thousands of affected people by bowsers for the past two years.
Though drinking water is provided to the affected people and considering that to date no action has been taken to clear the contamination at source, National Water Supply & Drainage Board (NWSDB) as the authority responsible for supply of drinking water should act immediately. They should find the cause for underground contamination and provide a lasting solution to this problem. A system of monitoring introduced at these wells to ensure that nobody pollutes the reservoirs. The pollutant from the Chunnakam Power Station waste oil is a hydrocarbon product and as a light non-aqueous phase liquid is a contaminant that is not soluble in water. Once it infiltrates the underground reservoirs, it will stop at the height of the water table because it is less dense than water. Therefore efforts to locate and remove it are relatively less expensive and easier because it floats on top of the water in the underground water table. It should be kept away from Chlorine compounds that are used to make clean water suitable for drinking, killing a broad spectrum of micro-organisms due to the high probability of forming toxic acids. In order to remove sources of groundwater contamination, tests are needed to accurately detect and measure the amounts of these chemicals in the contaminant.
One short term solution is to treat the water at source. If necessary seek help from specialist outside to purchase a suitable treatment plant and install to feed the polluted water from the contaminated wells at their water intake site at Chunnakam. The contour of the underground reservoirs is such that oil residues can get trapped in pockets inside due to seasonable fluctuation of water levels. This is because rain water percolates and raises the level and level drops as water is drawn out from the wells during dry season. For this reason, a well that was cleaned, may at a later date during dry seasons bring up trapped oil, in which case the treatment needs to be repeated on that well again till the water gets clear again. If this method is followed properly the problem could be solved in about couple of years. The process to continue until the quality of water from these wells is of acceptable levels to WHO standards. Thereafter these wells shall all be flushed out and washed with clean water, before resuming drinking water supply from these wells. During the treatment process the pumps draining the wells cannot be operated continuously as the wells get depleted after few hours and time must laps for the wells to get recharged. This process to continue till all the polluted wells are all cleared of pollution, flushed and washed. The processed water from the treatment plant shall be tested regularly for quality and its use determined based on tests. It could then be used until completion of treatment for other purposes, such as for irrigation, washing and bathing provided it is approved as acceptable by authorities for such use and finally to be cleared for use as potable water. Based on the progress made at this Chunnakam water intake site, the process should be repeated at all other water intake sites. Initially the process applied to other NWSDB water supply schemes and later to cover all other wells in the peninsula. In parallel strict enforcement of procedures related to protecting water resources in the peninsula and offenders punished by law. As a long term and lasting solution the authorities in charge of water supply should look at alternate sources to enhance the supply of drinking water in the peninsula, such as the river for Jaffna plan or provide desalinated sea water irrespective of the amount of expenditure.
Groundwater is an important source of drinking water in Jaffna Peninsula and is a great hidden resource. Like the water within a saturated sponge, move slowly through pores and cracks in the earth to be replenished locally. Although most groundwater supplies are clean, they are, due to human neglect and carelessness, vulnerable and threatened. In Jaffna Peninsula domestic, agricultural and industrial potable water requirements of the people are met by fresh water stored in the underground aquifers. Today, water is drawn up manually or by pumps of varying capacities from these aquifers by the population using traditional wells, or bore holed tube wells. During the rainy season flood water percolates through the ground recharging the depleted aquifer reservoirs. From the time of civilization this ecological balance has prevailed in the peninsula, this was however disturbed with increase in usage of water by ever increasing population. First due to over extraction of water resulting in intrusion of sea water along the coast, then pollution by chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides due to intensified agriculture practices, that was followed by bacterial pollution due to overcrowding in built-up areas. Final pollution of ground water was caused by dumped industrial waste.
This was well illustrated by the man-made disaster that occurred at Chunnakam Power Station. The suspected source of pollution was waste oil dumped in a piece of land in Valikamam-South Divisional Secretary area, has been used since 1950s by Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). This man-made disaster was caused by the thermal power plants at Chunnakam Power Station situated about 10 km north to Jaffna city is a highly populated area surrounded by Uduvil, Sandilipay, Mallakam and Punalaikadduwan. It covers three divisional secretary areas; Valikamam-North, Valikamam-South and Valikamam-East. CEB owned old power plant had disposed its waste oil at the same site. In 1987-89 some oil storage tanks were blasted by armed groups resulting in the release of oil in to the environment. There had been a collection of oil effluent in a crater called ‘oil-lake’.
Unfortunately, when such disasters take place most unthinkable reasons are given for the failure both by the authorities, affected people, and civil society causing delays to rectify the damage as in this instance. But this is understandable in a country, where responsible authorities never come forward to accept responsibilities and act to rectify mistakes to avoid recurrence of such disasters. Poor implementation of rules and regulations by authorities as seen elsewhere in the country was the main cause for this situation. The implementation of law is more important than the making laws. It is useless making laws without properly implementing them. To date no one has questioned or researched in to finding out what happened to this large quantity of oil that was contained in this crater. In 2012 most of this area was filled with earth and compacted and a new substation built on this premises, where only some scattered dried murky substance can be seen in the site. The new substation was built and operated by Northern Power Company (Pvt) Ltd., a private company operating since April 2005 built a 15 MW Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) powered electricity generation plant with storage facilities for HFO and waste oil in the area and commenced electricity generation in May 2009 who sold the generated electricity to CEB for distribution in the peninsula. CEB owned another 13.8 MW station commissioned in 2012 and a 24 MW HFO powered electricity generation plant commissioned in January 2013 generating electricity. CEB owns a grid sub-station (connecting with Killinochchi grid sub-station and incorporating above two thermal powered electricity generation stations) too in a part of this land area, since September 2013.
The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) which has regulatory powers to control industrial pollution introduced in 1990 the regulations pertaining to the Environmental Protection License (EPL) procedure for the control of industrial discharges. Furthermore, since 1990, all industries which discharge or deposit effluents or emissions into the environment are required to obtain an Environmental Protection License (EPL) from the Central Environmental Authority. The License so issued to an industry will stipulate the standards and criteria under which the industry is allowed to discharge its waste. Different standards are required to be complied with, depending on whether the final effluent is discharged into an inland surface water body such as a river or lake, into coastal waters or used for irrigation purposes. In addition to the standards for liquid effluent disposal, there are additional regulations on hazardous waste disposal, etc. which the Central Environmental Authority has already published. The Environmental Protection License issued to an industry is legally binding on the industry and violation of the conditions in a license is an offence punishable under the National Environmental Act. The license issued to industries is annually renewable and if an industry is found in non-compliance with the conditions in the license, action is usually taken to cancel the license and proceed with legal action. In 1993 the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) introduced the procedure for major development projects. Since 1993, all major development projects were required to undergo full scale environmental impact assessments prior to implementation. Power Generation is listed among the ‘Prescribed Projects’ which require Environmental Impact Assessments.
Industrial pollution control is a relatively a new field in particular to North that was affected by the civil war. This may have influenced CEB, who in 2009 wanted to add a thermal power plant at Chunnakam Power Station. In haste selected the 25MW capacity to overcome the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), public hearing, etc. that was mandatory for power plant over 25MW. The purpose of an EIA was to ensure that development plans or projects under consideration are environmentally sound and sustainable, and that environmental consequences are recognized and taken into account early in project design. As such prior to setting up this power plant the concerned local authority should have objected to it. Particularly in view of well-known waste furnace oil disposal problems with the earlier plant that is still in operation at the same site. Already there were strict practices in the peninsula on disposal of waste into pits from sanitation systems such as pit latrines and septic tanks. Then how was it the improper disposal of waste oil was not picked up by any authorities? Failure by CEB and the authorities to monitor the operation of the plant could be considered as a crime in this modern age. Due to the conflict and security reasons, the pollution matter did not surface until 2012.
As normalcy returned to Jaffna, in 2012 NWSDB had observed that their water intake site of Chunnakam smelled of fuel. Subsequently quality tests were carried out on water samples from the intake at the Power Station and nearby suburbs. Water samples taken from 150 wells around the Chunnakam Power Plant area were tested and found that 109 (73%) wells had higher oil level than the standard while 07 (4%) wells were under the limit and 34 wells (23%) were not contaminated with fuel oil and grease and that the oil spreading pattern was observed towards north, up to 1.50 to 2.0 km. Oil contaminants had spread further in the North compared to other directions where the spread was to less than 1.5 km.
NWSDB took measure to inform relevant authorities and others responsible to stop the pollution. Meetings were held with all relevant institutions and reported to the operator, but no action was taken from their side. Later following a meeting with the ministry for Power and Energy and all stakeholders in 2013 the CEB strictly instructed their contractor to stop the improper dumping and follow CEA standards on site. It has been alleged that the private company operating the diesel power plant was responsible for the dumping of waste oil and when the waste oil was not getting absorbed by the surface soil to facilitate oil to seep through, the operator drilled at the pit as many as 12 boreholes up to 150 feet deep to send the oil waste down in to the ground. The waste oil percolated into the underground aquifer the lifeline of the people, thus polluting the only source of potable water in the peninsula for drinking, domestic, agricultural and industrial uses. Both the Sri Lankan Environmental Ministry and Central Environmental Authority (CEA) have legal power to enforce rules and regulations against the acknowledged pollution at Chunnakam Power Station, but have failed to do so and the private company was unchallenged.
As in similar situations earlier elsewhere in the country, the whole matter surfaced only when affected people made a protest. Earlier the residents including schoolchildren held protests and a hunger strike against alleged oil leakage from the Chunnakam power plant. They demanded closure of the power station and find a permanent solution to the contamination of water. Affected residents supported by Health authorities and Chunnakam Police filed the petitions. The Mallakam District Court after considering several petitions has ordered the indefinite closure of the Power Station. Meanwhile, Northern Power denied allegations made against it stating these charges are baseless. Following the court order power station was closed and the site is under the control of the CEB. The local authorities have taken the initiative to supply potable water to the people affected in the area by bowsers.
In November 2014 this issue was brought to the notice of Jaffna Medical Association, who contacted the Health Ministry Officials in Colombo and arranged for samples to be collected from the suspected wells for analysis. A symposium with relevant stake holders and researchers was organized to discuss this most serious public health problem affecting the people of Jaffna in December 2014. At the same time a report containing detailed analysis of the ground water quality conducted by the Regional Laboratory of the NWSDB, Jaffna from 2012 to 2014 was released and proved that the wells around the Chunnakam fossil fuel power station have been contaminated not only with petroleum waste but also through lead a toxic heavy metal. Since then, it was reported that CEA would carry out a comprehensive investigation into the alleged furnace oil leakage by the Thermal Power Plant contaminating the water resources.
In May 2015 National Intellectuals and Professionals Organization (NIPO) a voluntary and an independent collective of Sri Lankan professionals and intellectuals of variety of disciplines with Jaffna district committee members prepared a report following a study of contamination of drinking water in Chunnakam area in Jaffna peninsula. A team of NIPO comprising a senior geologist, an engineering consultant experienced in power generation, a medical specialist and an accountancy professional visited the area on 15th and 16th of February 2015 and also met a committee representing an organization of affected community “Affected People’s Union for Pure Water (APUPW)”, a committee consisting of doctors, engineers, university academics and various other professionals.
A case of no light seen at the end of the Tunnel!