Chunnakam power station: Compensation £200 per person?

Environmentalists welcomed last week’s landmark judgement on Chunnakam power station in the North, which they deemed was a good eye opener for the rich and the powerful not to undermine the rights of the citizens and destroy the environment for private purposes.

Jagath Gunawardena, a leading environmental lawyer said this was a landmark ruling given that it was the highest penalty imposed by the Supreme Court on a fundamental rights case based on environment protection. “And also the case was vital because unlike on previous occasions the court deemed it was important to compensate the people affected by the power station,” he stressed.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the Northern Power Company Ltd., a contractor for Ceylon Electricity Board to pay compensation amounting to Rs.20 million to 500 residents who were affected by the operations of the thermal power station at Chunnakam.

The Fundamental Rights case was filed by Dr.Ravindra Kariyawasam, representing the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies in 2015. After considering the petition the SC suspended the operations of the power plant in January 2016.

In the Trial-at-Bar verdict last week the power company was found guilty of operating a thermal power station in Chunnakam in the Jaffna district making groundwater unfit for human use.It was ruled the company had not taken measures to address groundwater pollution due to haphazard dumping of waste products in the power plant.

A three-judge-bench comprising Justice Prasanna Jayawardena, Justice Priyantha Jayawardena and Justice L.T.B. Dehideniya delivered the historic order.Attorneys at law Nuwan Bopage and Chathura Wettasinghe appeared for the petitioners free of charge.

Although the petitioner sought the court to permanently cease the operations of the power plant the court has directed as follows – “The 8th respondent (the Northern Power Company) is permitted to resume operation of its thermal power station upon obtaining an Environment Protection License (EPL) and a Scheduled Waste Management License (SWML) from the BOI and/or CEA and subject to the Company’s strict adherence to the terms and conditions stipulated in that EPL and SWML, the National Environmental Act and the regulations made there under.”

The judges have noted that permanent shutting down of the power station would be unwise and also irresponsible in the light of the prevailing need for additional power generation to meet the demands of the national grid.

The BOI and the CEA are ‘permitted’ to issue an EPL and SWML to the power company after the BOI and the CEA, in consultation with the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), issue a certificate saying: (i) the machinery, equipment and apparatus of the thermal power station (including any additional machinery, equipment or apparatus which may now be required) have been checked and found to be in good working order and adequate to ensure that no pollution or contamination of the surrounding environs will be caused.

The thermal power company has been asked to ensure that the waste oil, waste water and other waste products generated in the course of the operations of the thermal power station are contained within the power station premises and released after being treated or processed in a proper manner.

The judgement also states it has to be ensured that the eventual discharge or disposal of waste oil, treated or processed wastewater and other waste products are in strict conformity with the terms, conditions and tolerance limits of the environment enactments of the country.

It has been ruled that the company must also obtain consultancy and certifications from the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), to resume operations and the BOI and the Central Environment Authority, in consultation with the NWSDB and with the assistance of the ITI, are required to conduct quarterly inspections of the company and samples of water in over 50 wells situated within 1.5km radius. The tests will be done to ascertain oil, grease content and BTEX content in ground water.

The judges have based the judgement on the principle of environment law, “Polluter Pay” which is also reflected in principle 16 of the Rio Declaration.

Gunawardena said, although it has not been highlighted, a salient point in the judgement was that a member of the public or an activist could come forward on behalf of affected parties to protect their rights which was in fact good news for the voiceless and the poorer segments of the society.

How compensation is paid

The distribution of the sum of Rs. 20 million among residents of Chunnakam shall be subject to the condition that only the chief occupant of a household is entitled to be paid out of these monies and that the maximum sum payable to one person is Rs.40,000.

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