Jaffna’s Water Contamination: Is the Chunnakam Power Plant Responsible?

Protests were held in Jaffna last week against alleged crude oil leakage by Chunnakam power plant. The protests which included students of schools, as well as hunger strikers demanded that action be taken to resolve the issue of leakage of crude oil by the Thermal power plant, which is alleged to be the cause of water contamination in wells in Jaffna. The protesters say that almost 400,000 litres of crude oil has been leaking from the Chunnakam thermal power station and seeping into local water supplies. They also demand the power station be closed based on these allegations; an immediate visit by the Minister of Energy and Power in order to resolve the situation; and a permanent solution to prevent contamination of water.

Allegations Denied

Nirj_Deva_RajapaksaIn a statement to media, Nothern Power Company (Pvt) Ltd denied allegations made against them and claimed that the allegations were made based on vested interest of other parties. It further explained that th ecrude oil which is discharged as waste from the power plant was stored in tanks and not released as they were sold to buyers.

The company’s statements to media also highlight that a large oil lake which existed within the previous State-run power plant premises before the thermal plant run by the company commenced its operations could be a potential cause for water pollution. It has also called for an independent committee comprising of specialists in the fields of environment, water resources, geologists and waste management be appointed to carry out an in-depth analysis of the problem using modern scientific techniques and ascertain the root cause of the contamination.

Environmental Impacts Assessments for Projects

Prior to setting up a power plant one would need an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The purpose of an EIA is 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. Provisions of the National Environmental Act on EIAs provide that EIA /IEE process is mandatory only for “Prescribed” projects, 23 State Agencies have been designated as Project Approving Agencies (PAA) and provide for public inspection and comments on EIA reports. However the public hearing is at the discretion of the PAA.

Prescribed projects published in Government Gazette (Gazette Extra Ordinary No 772/22 of 24th June and No 1104 of 5th November 1999) are based according to two categories. This is by type and magnitude and by location. For example, thermal power projects over 25 MW, hotels over 99 rooms, highways over 10 km are required to undergo the EIA process under the magnitude category. However the Chunnakam power plant’s capacity is published as 24MW, which puts it below the capacity of projects qualifying as prescribed projects. Under the category of location, any project that is located in an environmental sensitive area such as river reservations, forest reserves, should undergo an IEE/EIA irrespective of the magnitude. Further, the EIAs are of two levels. One being the IEE (Initial Environmental Examination) and the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment). The Project Approving Agency decides whether an IEE or EIA is required and the criteria for selection will be based on the significance of impacts.

Chunnakam Power Plant and Environmental Licences

According to the information available on the Central Electricity Board website for development projects for which the CEB has received approval,  a 132kV Transmission Line Project Killinochchi – Chunnakam for the power generatedhas been approved an IEE in 2010. However it does not provide information on the approval granted for the setting up of the power plant.

The capacity of the plant is at 24MW which escapes the mandatory prescribed projects category. The protesters allege that a proper EIA, and an assessment of impacts were not conducted prior to setting up the plant. The question that remains here is whether the capacity being kept to 24MW was a tactful move to avoid the mandatory EIA process for the plant, and fast-tracking the gaining of approval by the Public Approving Agency. This would also avoid the report on environmental impacts and assessment being not requiring mandatory publication to the public. However in statements the company says that it possesses the necessary environmental licenses and approvals and that quarterly checks are carried out based out on the conditions required by the licensing authorities. A call for them to be released to the public?

EIAs and Public Participation

A key element of the EIA project is the element of public participation. The EIA report is open for public for 30 days while IEE reports are not required to open for public. Also Public Approving Authority (PAA) must publish notices in the Gazette and the National Newspapers inviting the public to make comments. A public hearing maybe held at the discretion of the PAA.

The new President’s election manifesto promises information on developmental projects to be opened to the public. Would the case of the Chunnakam power plant and its impacts assessment be one such document? Should this be one to be included in the 100 days plan? Northern politicians have stated to media that the issue has been already been brought to the attention of the President. What remains to be seen are the actions that he would take to address this situation.

Addressing Water Pollution

The locals claim that the water is contaminated due to crude oil. If the allegations are justified, this would be cause of health issues needing immediate action. Crude oil contains highly toxic chemicals to which children and elderly will be most vulnerable. Exposure to crude oil in the air could cause difficulty breathing, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and confusion.

Even brief exposure to crude oil could cause health problems for people with asthma, COPD, and other respiratory problems. Direct contact with contaminated water can cause skin damage while delayed effects of crude oil exposure can include liver, kidney, respiratory, reproductive. Given the magnitude of health impacts that are as risks of the current situation, it would be of urgent need to take action to mitigate the damages caused. While it’s required to find out who is responsible for crude oil being leaked, it is of equal, or urgent importance that the health situation of those affected be addressed with immediate effect.

Government Action

Minister of Resettlement, Reconstruction and Hindu Religious Affairs D.M Swaminathan has  informed media that the President and the Prime Minister have been informed of the situation. It is also reported that necessary steps are being taken to eradicate the situation with the Ministry of Environment is looking into the matter urgently.

Northern Provincial Council has also appointed a committee comprising university academics from the North and the South to study the problem. The committee is expected to commence its investigations on January 27.