SOS to the EPA

July 14,2016

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My recent participation in an event in village Buchal jolted me out of complacency. It was a public hearing for approval of limestone mining to manufacture cement and it was convened by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).

I was there as a lay citizen enraged by the prospect of yet another cement factory. As I neared the venue, I saw a crowd with placards and banners. Their cries of ‘cement factory na-manzur’ reverberated through the atmosphere. Soon the crowd swarmed into the arena and milled around the podium and all over. Frenzied accusations by opposing factions and insufficient seating resulted in a melee. The police had to intervene. After an hour of jostling, with juma prayers approaching, the event was called off without announcing a new date.

It was evident that the project supporters had misread the situation. They had banked on keeping the meeting under-advertised and the venue unannounced till late thus lowering attendance; overt support of petty officialdom; patronage of several currently-in-power councillors; and a bunch of fixer-enforcers – who scampered from the scene as things turned sour. I was exultant that the noora kushti ended in a fiasco but am unaware of the views of the EPA.

One moot point is about the possible outcome if a public hearing had been held that day. Perhaps the lack of awareness of the hazards of cement would have become starkly evident. Compounding this pervasive ignorance are the very people who should make us all wiser – the EPA. How is the EPA to blame for the ignorance of general citizens and what can they do? Let’s look at that in the context of the densest cluster of cement units in the Salt Range.

Every new cement unit seeks EPA approval through an Environmental Impact Assessment report. While a typical EIA report may be 600 pages, the community is concerned only with the chunks relating to pollution attributable to the project. Since nothing exists on the ground at this juncture, the make-believe narrative in the EIA is entirely about what it will be in the future – an ideal situation to allow the EIA to recklessly mollify all possible fears of pollution. On the other hand, the rules dictate that review of the EIA is based on its qualitative and quantitative assessment. How does one do so when confronted with only statements of intent for likely causes of mischief? This flaw underpins the opaque culture of EIA approvals.

The ruse of public hearing notwithstanding, the responsibility of approval of the EIA lies on the EPA. So does the burden of a botch. It is a paradox that, hard as it is to correctly evaluate an EIA when it is required to be evaluated, a post-facto scrutiny to judge if it was correctly done is ridiculously easy. Just a few laboratory tests will reveal all the initial errors.

A cluster of four cement factories located on or near the Choa Saiden Shah to Kalar Kahar road in Chakwal district materialised in quick succession some 10 years ago. Apart from the spurious EIA approvals, there is so much more to contend with. Located within a radius of just 8 km, these four units perhaps constitute one of the densest clusters of cement factories anywhere – located in a beguiling valley of ecological and historical significance. Petite, fragile and water scarce, it supports a quarter million people in a dozen odd picturesque villages.

The entire landscape is dotted with world renowned historic sites. Once known for its magical landscape and idyllic climate, the valley is now in palpable decline.

No wonder the valley is unable to cope with cement production of 24,000 tons each day and dynamite blasts for 40,000 tons of limestone. The dark toxic plumes associated with fuel-saving and cost-saving gimmicks are a nightly spectacle. Add to that the pulverising of the landscape by a large fleet of seven-ton trucks and puddles of heavy oil effluents all over.

There has been an alarming rise in pollution-related chest and skin diseases. Large-scale pilferage of water by the factories has plunged the inhabitants into their third deepening of domestic bores – the water table has dropped so perceptibly. And then there is the spectre of more cement factories being envisaged by the ruinous forces out to grind till the last limestone even if all living beings perish.

There is a compelling need to establish the truth through a comprehensive study. The EPA must deliver upon their core function of protecting and conserving the environment. Let that start with a study of the type done on rivers Indus, Jhelum and others – but even more comprehensive. The proposed study will cover the pollution caused by the cluster of cement manufacturing units and track it to where its ill affects reach.

Having been in operation for over a decade, they have indelibly put their polluting footprint on the landscape. It would require affiliation with a third party as performance of the EPA will also be under scrutiny for the quality of initial evaluation of EIA reports, monitoring of fulfilment of commitments by the proponent, and appropriate enforcement of applicable rules.

The most critical aspect of the study would be the measurement of ‘pollution’ as defined in the Environmental Protection Act. Thus the contamination of air, land and water will be measured. As per the unambiguous text of the definition, everything which unfavourably alters the chemical, biological, thermal, or aesthetic properties of the air, land or water will be measured. One outcome of the study will be to state how the quantum found are injurious or detrimental to health and welfare of persons or biodiversity – all falling manifestly within the scope of pollution.

The study will establish if the quantum of water has receded in recent years. Whether respiratory and skin disorders have skyrocketed will be put to test. Let it be established if heavy trucks pulverising the landscape and 40,000 tons of limestone blasted each day cause noise and vibrations. Let us ascertain if there has been any warming because of these units. We may even determine if there was ever an iota of wisdom in locating it all in this setting.

The scope of the study may need external funding and expertise; the EPA will find willing support as environment is among donors’ preferred choices. One critical factor is that the civil society must have a role in formulation of ToRs and oversight otherwise the outcome will face sharp scepticism.

Only a study of this sort will educate the public to formulate their future choices on the basis of data and reason. An informed public is the real bulwark against encroachment by wily polluters. The outcome will have even greater value for the EPA. It will enable them to: improve their guidelines and SOP; more accurately predict the outcomes; incorporate appropriate bindings at the outset; modify rules and/or culture to shift benefit of doubt to community; strengthen ability to obtain more information on equipment and machinery (make, lifespan, whether new etc); and, generally tighten the net to combat pollution.

If designed well and done competently the outcome could become a global benchmark. The report will help to create the right space between communities and toxin prone industries. Now is the time to launch this study as cement manufacturing is still just taking off.

The writer is an Islamabad-based retired federal secretary.



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