By Ranil Senanayake –
The national media carried two news items that seem to reflect the duality our national psyche and this reality bodes ill for the future. One was the 300,000 EUR grant agreement supporting improved monitoring and reporting of air quality in Sri Lanka. The reason for this is the deteriorating quality of air becoming a more prevalent through national and increasingly through increasing unchecked seasonal air pollution events, generally imported from the industrial pollution from Indian cities. The most recent event was in January this year, when NBRO declared dangerous levels of air quality in several parts of the country. Clean breathable air must be considered a basic human right. The move by the French Government to institute a series of air quality measuring stations is to be greeted with gratitude.
The other news item was that the Government was considering setting up an oil refinery in Hambantota. Has anyone thought about the air quality this nation will have to suffer if such a hare brained scheme was ever allowed to materialize? Has anyone responsible for this scheme ever though about the well being of all of us who live in the South? or is this a sinister plot to destroy the health of the southern population?
Have those promoting the building of oil refineries in Hambantota obtained advice or direction from the Environmental Ministry? Have the approvals been given and pollution limits set or are these media fishing expeditions by a bankrupt system? What ever the sinister and obscure details are behind this sudden talk of oil refineres, it is incumbent on the institutions set up to protect the environment and health of our people, to inquire into the polluting nature of such proposed activities.
In the absence of any public institution concerned with the environment informing the public on the consequences of setting up a oil refinery in Hambantota, I will take up the task, in the hope that we will see some action by the state actors more than just mouthing hossanas for their political bosses.
Here are some well known facts :
Air pollution in the oil industry is highest in the refining sector. Refineries are a major source of toxic polutants including cancer causing benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and smog forming particulate matter
Water pollution: Oil refineries use and discharge contaminated wastewater difficult to treat and to dispose of. Some refineries that use deep-injection wells to dispose of wastewater result in some of these wastes end up in aquifers and groundwater. Discharge limits of sulfides, ammonia, suspended solids and other compounds that may be present in the wastewater, must be set.
Soil pollution: Contamination of soils from the refining processes is a problem when spills and leaks appear . Many residuals are produced during the refining processes, and some of them are recycled through other stages in the process. Soil contamination including some hazardous wastes, spent catalysts or coke dust, tank bottoms, and sludges from the treatment processes can occur from leaks as well as accidents or spills on or off site during the transport process.
According to the California government, where there are a large amount of refineries, the adverse health effects living near a refinery, include: increased risk of asthma, cancers, birth defects. Other studies show that people living within 10 miles of a refinery are at a much higher risk of developing a wide range of health issues including asthma, cancers, neurological and cardiovascular damage along with blood disorders.
It is not only the operations of the refinery that we have to be concerned about, spillage in transport is an ongoing problem around the world. Oil spills into rivers, bays, and the ocean most often are caused by accidents involving tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, drilling rigs, and storage facilities.
Oil floats on saltwater (the ocean) and usually floats on freshwater (rivers and lakes). Oil usually spreads out rapidly across the water surface to form a thin layer that is called an oil slick. Spilled oil can harm living things because its chemical constituents are poisonous. This can affect organisms both from internal exposure to oil through ingestion or inhalation and from external exposure through skin and eye irritation.
A refinery close to Bundala, Kalamatiya and Yala will undoubtably affect the biodiversity of the parks negatively through pollution of the air, water and soil. It is surprising that the Wild life authorities have not been made aware or have considered the impact of heavy industry on the national parks.
But in all the hoopla and hysteria surrounding a political decision by a small group to promote oil refineries, we the people have been forgotten. Our national aspirations have been compromised, if one assumes that it the well-being of our children and the health of our communities that is the bedrock of our national aspirations, then why have these aspects been ignored by those promoting oil refineries in Sri Lanka?
The most polluting sector of the oil industry is refining the crude and most of the pollutants produced will be dumped in the air. The price of increasing the air pollution burden of our population is well known, it accelerates aging of the lungs, leads to the loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function and the development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema,cancer, shortened life spans etc.
Long-term exposure to such polluted air will have permanent health effects, those most affected will be, Individuals with heart disease, coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure, Individuals with lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pregnant women, outdoor workers, older adults and the elderly. Children under age 14, athletes who exercise vigorously outdoors, have also been shown to be affected.
As far as tourism goes, the impact of an oil refinery on the south coast is obvious. But how about our carbon footprint? All of a sudden, we could be exporters of fossil carbon and in a climate challenged world we could become liable for emissions. Have those in Climate Change and those in the ministry realized what such enterprises will do to our Nationally Derived Contributions?
Decisions of such magnitude require national discussion, the future must not be compromised for the whims of a few. So, while we must applaud the drive to monitor and protect the quality of our air, we must also question processes demonstrated to impact the very air that we seek to monitor.