Recently, a garment factory operating within the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Seethawaka was caught dumping 19 gully-bowsers of toxic sludge into the ocean through the Madampitiya Sewarage Pumping Station – which is only designed to handle non-toxic waste. The pumping station is used by the Colombo Municipal Council to dump the city’s non-toxic sewage some two kilometres off into the ocean.
However, the garment factory in question had used the station to illegally dump toxic and hazardous sludge. On 11 July, five of the bowsers were apprehended by the coordinated efforts of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), STF, Environmental Police, the Navy and Coast Guard. It was also learnt that this has not been the first time the company has been illegally dumping toxic waste in this manner.
The textile industry’s waste products have been a major concern in Sri Lanka for a while. Toxic run-off from garment factories has contaminated water sources around industrial zones, causing immense environmental and economic damage in many areas. Processes in textile manufacture, such as de-sizing, scouring, bleaching, dyeing and printing, release hazardous substances such as heavy metals, chlorinated solvents and high PH chemicals.
Various industry-grade detergents are very toxic to aquatic life, and various solvents and dyes cause organ damage in humans. Nevertheless, dumping toxic waste into the ocean also has large ecological consequences. A well known case occurred in Japan where one industry dumped mercury components into Minimata Bay from 1932 to 1968. The Methyl Mercury that accumulated in fish and other animals passed the food chain to humans.
Consequently over 3,000 people and an unknown number of animals succumbed to what became known as ‘Minimata Disease’, a devastating illness that affects the central nervous system. In Sri Lanka, we’ve already seen the epidemic of kidney diseases in the country’s north central paddy region caused by harmful chemicals in fertilizers contaminating the groundwater. As in the case of Minimata, the textile industry produces heavy metals as waste products.
A case has been filed against the factory which is owned by a Board of Investment (BOI) registered company, and if convicted they can be fined from 4 million to 15 million rupees. Dumping toxic sludge into the ocean is a criminal offence and can impact Sri Lanka as well as other countries around the Indian Ocean region.
This is not the first instance of the BOI failing to regulate its own companies. One good example of their failure is the case of the imported garbage containers from another private company. An environmental activist said, at least a penalty should be imposed on the said company so that it can be used towards the ocean restoration work. Public outcry has been growing against the utter disregard of the environment by profiteers who do so with blatant disregard of laws and regulations while the authorities seemingly turn a blind eye to such activities.
In 2020, alone we’ve seen many of our oceanic resources been destroyed, from cutting down of mangrove forests to dumping of sand in beaches for supposed ‘enrichment’ not to mention the metric tonnes of garbage that wash up on our shores each month. To add more to the dismal record, Sri Lanka ranks fifth in the list of countries that dump the most plastic in global waters, according to one international study.
The irony is that the ones making the profits are essentially the people least affected by the environmental degradation. The people running these multi-million dollar polluting industries have the luxury of purchasing and living in pristine environments far removed from where the huddled masses live while choking on the poisonous gasses produced by the factories, drinking the toxic water and eating the contaminated food.
Likewise the world-class textiles produced by the cheap labour in Sri Lanka’s garment factories are mostly enjoyed by the ones living in the global north, who are worlds apart from the squalor and pollution. The thought of developing countries spiralling further into environmental damage, while producing the first world’s commodities, leading into poverty and resulting political instability is not a bad dream, but a fact.
The viable solution is for the industry to adopt serious regulation. Likewise companies can spend more on better risk assessment and adopt good manufacturing practices; ones which eliminates waste. Textile factories can switch to chemical substitutes with low environmental impact and implement wastewater treatments that filters solid substances and neutralisation that balances PH levels. However, if the responsible party is not compliant it will be up to the common people to petition the Government and proper authorities to implement the needed regulation.