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Opinion

October 9, 2016

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Victims of limestone

Exploitation of limestone in the Salt Range for the manufacturing of cement has become a nightmare for the local population. The fast depletion and pollution of underground water and intense dust and air pollution owing to cement factories have gone unregulated for more than one decade now.

Four cement factories installed in the limestone-rich Chakwal district have been pumping out groundwater since the first plant was set up in this area in 2004. This illegal activity has rendered drinking water scarce for the old inhabitants of the region. The situation is worse in particular in the district’s 30-km long, six-km wide Kahun Valley, where three factories are located as the underground water level has sunk by at least 300 feet during this period.

To make matters worse for the locals, three more cement plants are in the pipeline in the same valley awaiting approval from the Punjab government. The Salt Range already houses eight out of the 12 cement factories in the Punjab. These plants have considerably enhanced their installed capacities from those that were originally approved, without obtaining fresh environmental approval.

All the cement manufacturing units installed in the Chakwal district were granted environmental approval on the condition that they would bring water from nearby River Jhelum. The provincial environment department recently found out that these factories had instead been pumping out underground water through tubewells. An inspection by the environment department revealed that each factory had installed six to 12 tubewells.

According to the investigations by the Punjab environment department, water quality in the area has also deteriorated due to disposal of untreated wastewater from the cement factories as the polluted water from the plants seeps into the ground. A recent analysis of drinking water by the department revealed that values of Totally Dissolved Solids (TDS) and chloride exceeded the World Health Organisation’s guidelines in drinking water samples near one of the cement factories.

Some surveys conducted by the environment department show that dust and smoke from cement plants are a major environmental concern in the Kahun Valley as they exceed national environmental quantity standards. As per official regulation, cement factories are required to install electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) for dust control since these plants emit very fine particles that can go deep inside human lungs. An ESP absorbs these fine particles before the dust goes out of chimneys. It is alleged that the factories have installed the equipment but do not run them in order to save on their electricity bills.

Due to water scarcity and increased air pollution, the locals of the area are protesting against the installation of more cement factories in the valleys, which were once known for their orchards, wildlife and pleasant weather in summer days but now have become hazardous place to live. A total of 15 applications for the installation of cement plants in different areas of Punjab are lying with the provincial mines and minerals department. One of them has already received a mining lease in the Kahun valley from the mines department.

A major reason behind the mushroom growth of cement plants is that businessmen get mining leases for limestone at throw-away rates, even lower than that of earth soil. The proximity of the motorway to the Salt Range has also made the Kallar Kahar and Kahun regions lucrative sites for setting up cement plants. Further, once cement plants are installed plant owners, in collusion with government officials, start acquiring vast tracts of the adjacent agricultural lands at the official rate – exploiting the Land Acquisition Act.

The lease for limestone mines, like other minerals, is awarded to influential people with right connections. There is a need to introduce a bidding culture for award of leases for small- and large-scale mining operations so that this precious resource serves our requirements on a sustainable basis.

It is the responsibility of the provincial government to create and notify negative areas where further industrial expansion is prohibited and this list should be revised periodically. In order to protect the environment and the interests of the local communities, not more than one cement factory ought to be allowed in a radius of 30 kilometres.

Further, there is no legal instrument available to regulate the cement sector. The provincial mines and minerals department is authorised to grant leases for raw material; and afterwards it collects royalty on it. The existing mining legal framework is quite lax and has many loopholes that allow industrial units to get away scot-free with violating environment-related conditions.

The government needs to introduce punitive clauses in the mining laws to ensure mining operations are efficient and comply with environmental standards. An appropriate regulatory regime needs to be put in place to prevent the tapping of underground water by cement plants and to control their emissions. The mere installation of ECPs at the plants is not enough. There must be a reliable mechanism to check that that they are regularly run to mitigate air pollution.

The provincial environment department grants environment approval of the impact assessment report at the time of installation of a cement plant but it lacks the institutional capacity to monitor the compliance of pollution-litigation clauses and other conditions under which permission is granted. Institutional arrangements for the strict monitoring of the cement sector and other mining-related industrial sectors need to be improved.

Urgent administrative interventions are needed in the districts of Chakwal, Jhelum, Khushab and Mianwali to address the depleting underground water levels and contamination of aquifers. In the meanwhile, in order to identify alternate solutions for safe water supply to the affected local people, the environment and mining departments must conduct a detailed survey of underground water levels in the Salt Range and prepare a hydrological model.

Email: [email protected]

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