By Shanika Sriyananda
The Atomic Energy Agency (AEA), which commenced its preliminary investigations recently to check the UK-based waste consignment for any radioactive components, has requested Sri Lanka Customs (SLC) to enable them to take samples freely to facilitate their fully-fledged probe.
A team of AEA officials visited the Colombo International Terminal at the Port recently and carried out preliminary testing before commencing the full inquiry.
The Court of Appeal has already given an interim order in response to a petition submitted by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) banning the re-exporting of the cargo at the Port and the container loads lying at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (KFTZ) and moving the two consignments to any other locations without the approval of the Court.
“The Court has ordered us to get assistance from the Government Analyst’s Department (GAD) to submit a report regarding the two consignments to the Court by 20 September,” an SLC official said
He said the SLC needed to take precautionary measures before opening the remaining 107 containers, in which the waste has been suppressed in tightly-closed containers for over one-and-a-half-years.
“We opened five containers at the Port and found mixed trash including used mattresses, carpets, fabric, feathers and steel structures but we couldn’t check into the containers as they had an unbearable stench. Initially, it was 111 containers but recently we found another container belong to the same consignment,” he said.
When asked whether the consignment contained human remains and also clinical waste, the official said the SLC couldn’t declare what exactly was in the containers without an in-depth check by taking the entire trash loads out, but they were emitting a strong stench.
The Medical Research Institute (MRI) will also commence its preliminary examination soon to check for any pathogens and once both initial examinations are done, the results will be submitted to the Government Analyst (GA) to commence the full examination to identify the waste in the consignment. “After the final report from the GA, we will open the containers,” he said.
The company, whether it was HFZL or someone else, it was responsible for abandoning huge piles of waste, which were emitting an unbearable stench and causing damage to the environment and also human health – Customs DG P.S.M. Charles
The Court has ordered the GAD to submit a full report following media reports that the containers had clinical waste and human remains.
“Some of the waste in the KFTZ has liquidised and deteriorated and it is difficult to identify the waste without a scientific analysis,” he said.
The issue of unclaimed trash containers lying at the Port was first exposed when the SLC’s Consumer Protection Unit (CPU) launched an operation over consignments which were identified as ‘risk consignments’ due to suspicion.
The plans for random checking of suspected cargo to detect waste was first mooted as an outcome of knowledge sharing session between the participants of the Asia Pacific regional Customs officers workshop and a top SLC Consumer Protection Unit officer who met in Korea in mid-2018. There, it was revealed South Asian and South East Asian countries had become the latest dumping grounds for trash from the West.
With China, the biggest importer of plastic waste, stopping receiving waste from developed countries in early 2018, South East Asian and East Asian countries became waste dumps from the West but several countries took stern decisions to return the waste to the countries of origin.
This year, Cambodia re-shipped 1,600 tons of waste which came from the US and Canada; the Philippines sent back 69 container loads of waste to Canada; and Malaysia re-shipped five containers of trash to its original owner, Spain.
Companies import waste by misusing the CHRs, which is in operation in many countries effectively – SLC Superintendents Union President Uditha Jayasingha
South East nations like Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia, where containers of trash came from the West to be processed, claimed that their environmental costs were higher than the income they get from importing waste.
According to Greenpeace, the trash is exported mainly by the US, Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK.
“Richer countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in poorer countries,” Greenpeace Philippines Country Director Lea Guerrero had told media. “They export the trash here because it’s more expensive for them to process the mixed contaminated waste themselves back home due to the tighter laws.”
Some international research has found that a significant percentage of the imports is mixed municipal waste that cannot be recycled and releases highly-poisonous fumes.
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives said water bodies close to waste dumps in some villages in some countries had been contaminated with dangerous levels of zinc, iron and lead. Entire crop fields have also been wiped out, posing a threat to local livelihoods.
Operation Green Earth
Following the concept of ‘Operation Green Earth’ to prevent Asia and Pacific countries becoming dumping grounds for waste – both hazardous and non-hazardous – initiated by the Regional Intelligence Liaison Office Asia and Pacific of the World Customs Organisation, the SLC’s CPU had put the suspected cargo under its microscope.
“We started this operation in May 2019 and were vigilant on all containers entering the country to see whether they had waste. During our examination we found that there were 111 un-cleared containers at the Port since 2018, said an official who wished to remain anonymous since an internal investigation is going on to probe the alleged UK-based trash importation.
He said the SLC together with the CEA had checked five containers randomly and found used mattresses, carpets, feathers, etc. from the face of the containers, adding that the team couldn’t examine the entire load due to the strong smell.
We have all the required documents including shipping documents to prove the involvement of those who were at fault for importing the two waste consignments – Customs
“In the documents the waste was declared as used ‘municipal and household waste’. We also found that the loads were to be transported to a location at Katunayake, where they re-processed the waste to re-export,” he said.
From the available documents, he said, they found a similar consignment dumped at Hayleys Free Zone Ltd. (HFZL) in its land No. 4 at the KFTZ under the approval of the Sri Lanka Board of Investment (BOI).
“We estimated that there are over 100 container loads of waste piled up to 30 feet high. The documents produced by the company state that the waste loads, with an unbearable stench and mixed with water, had been brought into the country in December 2017,” he said. The official said that the investigation team had found that there were no facilities for re-processing at the HFZL and the waste was just dumped openly at the zone.
However, the SLC official said they had all the required documents including shipping documents to prove the involvement of those who were at fault for importing the two waste consignments.
SLC proposes to include in CHRs
Meanwhile, SLC’s Director-General P.S.M Charles said that the SLC was extremely concerned about the manipulation of regulations to import prohibited items to the country.
Highlighting the need for revising the Commercial Hub Regulations (CHRs) to prevent hazardous waste importation in future, she said the SLC would propose to the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media to include SLC in the CHRs operations.
Entrepót trade or the re-export trade involves importing goods from one country and re-exporting to another, with or without any additional processing or repackaging. Goods are exempt from duties at the point of import and re-exports.
We are struggling to dispose of our own garbage; Sri Lanka is not a dustbin for other countries – Lobby groups
CHRs were initially introduced in Part IV of the Finance Act No. 12 of 2012 of Sri Lanka which was amended by Finance Act No. 12 of 2013, cited as ‘Finance Act – Commercial Hub Regulations’ in the gazette notification No. 1818/30 of 11 July 2013.
“Although we have not informed the Ministry about bringing some new regulations to prevent Sri Lanka becoming a waste dump for foreign waste, we are trying to streamline certain powers vested with us to block such imports in the future,” Charles told Daily FT.
She also said that the SLC was also looking into the possibilities of streamlining terminal operations, which were not operating according to proper procedure to detect such ‘risk’ consignments.
“The names of the companies were mentioned in the shipping documents but no owner came forward to clear the containers at the Port. This is why we are trying to rectify those loopholes in the system to have a smooth cargo handling process soon,” she explained.
DG Charles has appointed a three-member committee comprising top SLC officials to investigate containers at the Port and the HFZL in Katunayake.
“The inquiry is progressing and we will submit our report to the Ministry soon. Following the final outcome of our inquiry, we will send our submissions to the Minister regarding new laws and regulations that need to be included in the existing CHRs, the loopholes in the present system of handling cargo, the real culprits of importation of waste from the UK and the remedial measures to take against illegal consignments, especially importing waste,” Charles said.
The SLC Chief said that the responsible parties in importing the illegal waste consignments would be determined once the probe was concluded but the BOI and the CEA should be held responsible legally as they had the mandate to monitor CHRs.
“The BOI and CEA have to take legal action against the so-called importers. It is still premature for me to reveal the name of the company for its involvement in importing the waste until we conclude our inquiry,” she said.
We are in the process of gathering the necessary information to take legal action against the company. Since the waste was stored in their land they can’t claim that the waste loads do not belong to them – CEA Chairman Isura Devapriya
Charles said that the SLC was conducting two investigations into the two waste loads at the Port and the Katunayake to determine the parties involved but was awaiting instructions from the Court of Appeal to proceed.
First waste importation
When asked whether the SLC had any previous records of waste being imported to Sri Lanka, she said although SLC had discovered the illegal operation for the first time, the SLC probe would uncover whether such operations had been carried out earlier.
The DG said that the SLC had sought expertise from the GAD and the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology to confirm whether the waste had clinical, mortuary or other hazardous waste, despite being declared as municipal and household waste in the shipping documents.
Meanwhile, the SLC Chief also said the company, whether it was HFZL or someone else, was responsible for abandoning huge piles of waste that were emitting an unbearable stench and causing damage to the environment and also human health.
CHRs are illegal because the powers vested by Parliament on the two State institutions – Sri Lanka Customs and IECD – had been taken away purportedly by a regulation, which is wrong – Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena
“As a responsible business entity, they could have informed the relevant authorities if they faced problems of re-exporting the waste at their zone,” she said.
Last week, lobby groups, including environmentalists, after having a demonstration with a slogan ‘Sri Lanka is not your dumping ground,’ handed over a letter to the officials of the British High Commission in Colombo urging to take their waste back.
“We are struggling to dispose of our own garbage; Sri Lanka is not a dustbin for other countries,” they said.
The Chairman of the DG-appointed investigation committee and SLC’s Deputy Director Aqthar Hassen said the committee was tasked with looking into all aspects of the issue to take legal action against the importers if they had violated existing laws and regulations when importing used goods.
“This is a fact-finding mission to find out whether the importers have violated laws and the BASEL Convention during importation and also the compensation that we can get for violating the process,” he said, adding that they would also investigate whether there was any involvement of money laundering and whether the logistic orders had been received by the actual importer.
He noted that they would expedite the investigation since the SLC’s main concern was to send the waste consignments back to the country of origin.
According to Hassen, when they questioned relevant parties involved in the containers at the Port, they divulged information about 130 containers at Katunayake which were cleared through the BOI under the CHRs.
In the case of importing 112 container loads of used materials, if the importer was not a hub operation entity and also not privileged to have been exempted to obtain an importer license under CHRs, the company has violated the laws to import the used material – SLC DD Aqthar Hassen
He said that the company, which imported waste, had not come to clear the consignment at the Port and had abandoned the containers instead, with no effort being made to clear the consignment.
“Unless they register themselves, they cannot process the clearance without the Customs Declaration (CUSDEC). The SLC doesn’t get involved in the hub operation but in special cases we have the authority to examine the containers. Under the CHRs, the two authorities involved in clearance are the SLC and the BOI but if the consignment comes under CHRs, it should go through the BOI to process the CUSDEC,” he said, adding that there was no CUSDEC made by any of the parties to clear the 112 containers at the Port.
Hassen, who is also a lawyer, said there were no provisions to import foreign waste under the National Environment Act No. 47 of 1980 but when used goods were being imported under CHRs, the exporting country had an obligation under the BASEL Convention to get the consent from the importing country – Sri Lanka – which is a party to the Convention.
No consent from importing country
“Therefore, if Sri Lanka has not consented to the exporting country to export the goods, then it will be violating the Convention and also the law of Sri Lanka. If some party or individual is exporting used material, according to existing laws they should get a valid license from the Import and Export Controller Department (IECD) as it has restricted used materials coming into the country,” he explained.
If such hazardous consignments are permitted to be dumped on our soil or sent to open dumps, the underground water table and the surrounding environment will be severely affected – Environmental Scientist Hemantha Withanage
He said in the case of importing 112 container loads of used materials, if the importer was not a hub operation entity and also not privileged for exemption to obtain an importer license under CHRs, the company had violated the laws in importing the used material.
“The issue here is that some interested parties have taken undue advantages of the facility and also the authorities mandated to monitor the smooth flow of the CHRs could have been more vigilant when such consignments were allowed get clearance under CHRs,” he said.
SLC Superintendents Union President Uditha Jayasingha charged the companies that imported waste of misusing the CHRs, which is in operation in many countries effectively.
“The waste containers were brought into the country using wrong declarations. Since we are not included in the process we are not monitoring the cargo entering into the country through the BOI,” he said.
Jayasingha said that if the SLC was a part of the hub operation this would have been detected earlier. He emphasised on the need to include the SLC in the CHRs process to prevent illegal and hazardous goods entering the country in the future.
CEJ’s Executive Director Hemantha Withanage said that they suspected that waste consignments were imported to be disposed of in the country, which would cause severe damage to people and the environment. The CEJ filed a petition in the Court of Appeal against the CEA and DG of SLC on their failure to regulate the importation of mixed contaminated waste into the country and also to order a probe to take legal action against the importer or importers under the terms of the NEA and the Customs Ordinance.
“If such hazardous consignments are permitted to be dumped on our soil or sent to open dumps, the underground water table and the surrounding environment will be severely affected,” Withanage, a senior Environmental Scientist, said.
Violation of BASEL Convention
Withanage said that the importer by bringing in hazardous waste had also violated the terms of the BASEL Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory and had ratified the Convention in 1992.
The CEJ has also requested the Court to order the importer to re-export the waste containers to their original destination – the UK or any other countries.
CEA Chairman Isura Devapriya said a special CEA team, including CEA’s Laboratory experts, and officials of the Board of Investment had visited the site yesterday and they would issue their report soon.
The HFZL has no intention of making the country a waste dump. As a reputed and responsible leading logistic company, HFZL engaged in a totally legitimate and transparent process and we have all the necessary documents to prove it – HFZL Managing Director Ruwan Waidyaratne
“We are taking legal action against the company after the team hands over its report to us,” he said, adding that the CEA would definitely take legal action against the company for importing waste loads without obtaining an Environmental Protection License.
He also said that the team would investigate whether they had imported clinical waste, which is not spelled out in the NEA’s schedule regarding the disposal of garbage.
“We are in the process of gathering the necessary details to take legal action against the company. Since the waste is stored in their land they can’t claim that the waste loads do not belong to them,” he said.
Meanwhile, refuting allegations that HFZL had imported waste illegally, its Managing Director Ruwan Waidyaratne said that they had followed all the necessary requirements when dealing with 130 containers of used mattresses from the UK.
He said that an EPL from the CEA was necessary but when the matter was discussed with the BOI, it had informed the HFZL that it was not required to handle cargo at an off-shore location.
Waidyaratne said that they had to channel the operation through BOI and SLC, which had the authority to examine when the cargo was brought in to the country.
“It has gone through the process and been approved by the BOI, the documents have gone through the SLC before getting the cargo into the country,” he said, adding that no waste was brought in those containers and the loads were the used mattresses, carpets and felt which were to be re-processed for re-export at the HFZL premises.
Re-process and re-export
According to Waidyaratne, the HFZL has no intention of making the country a waste dump as media claimed but the whole operation was to re-process and re-ship to countries where there is a high demand for metal, steel, springs and felt in the used mattresses.
“Over 96% of mattresses in the world can be re-worked. Metal, steel and springs can be separated and steel is a high demand cargo product. Felt goes for underlining carpets and sponge goes for automobile seat production but this is not a business that we are involved in,” he said.
Waidyaratne said that he wanted to clarify that the dismantling of mattresses was mainly done by the importer, which is Ceylon Metal Processing Corporation Ltd. (CMPCPL) in Colombo, owned by Sasikumaran Muthuramar; the cargo was exported by the exporting company Vengaads Ltd. at No. 23, Seward Stone Gardens, London, owned by Vengadesha Muthuramar, who is Sasikumaran’s brother; and the freight forwarder is ETL Colombo Ltd., with which HFZL entered into an agreement to re-process and re-ship the cargo.
“It is totally a logistic operation and we are a legal entity established under the Commercial Hub Regulation Act No. 1 of 2013. Operating as an offshore location to provide logistics services to global clientele with over 100 customers, our main task is to offer storage and value added services for re-export, as done in other free zones in the world,” he said.
Waidyaratne further said according to the CHRs any cargo arriving at the Free Zone premises must be consigned to the Free Zone operator and although the CUSDEC stated the consignee as HFZL, it had no legal entitlement to the cargo and was not the owner or the importer of these used mattresses, as clearly shown in the commercial invoice.
He said under CHRs no cargo could be taken out of the Hayleys Free Zone, which spans eight acres, and has a state-of-the-art distribution facility for which it had invested Rs. 2 billion.
Asked why did CMPCPL took two years to separate the mattresses, he said according to the agreement they had to provide necessary equipment for processing but due to failures in the machines they provided and also their financial difficulties, the re-processing came to a standstill after re-processing and re-shipping 29 containers to India and the Middle East out of 130 containers at the HFZ.
“The first cargo came in September 2017 and the last container was re-shipped in December 2018. The rest of the container loads are idling at the zone for over one-and-a-half years. Now we have requested the importer, who still says that he has buyers in hand, to re-ship. We are willing to support the importer to re-process if he finds buyers. As a responsible leading company we have taken a decision to processes these mattresses and re-export them expeditiously at the cost of the company as this cargo has to be sent out of the country under CHRs,” Waidyaratne said.
No clinical waste
He said it was not a waste dump with clinical waste and human body parts or hazardous waste as media accused, but only stocked used mattresses and there were no plans to dump the container loads at the Muthurajawela Sanctuary.
“As a reputed and responsible leading logistic company, HFZL has engaged in totally legitimate and transparent process and we have all the necessary documents to prove it. This is the very first consignment of used mattresses that we have undertaken to re-process,” he said, disassociating their involvement with the 112 containers with same used mattresses, carpets, etc., at the Colombo Port.
He said that some interested parties were going on a rampage with false accusations against the company, which has been in existence for over 140 years.
“We are not the importer nor consignee nor logistics services provider of importing 112 containers although it has been done by the same importer and exporter,” he said.
Well-known Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said the waste consignments had been brought into the country against the provisions of the BASEL Convention and the NEA and there was no prohibition under the Convention to re-send the entire waste to the country of origin. He also said that the waste loads were imported by violating the Customs Ordinance by making use of the CHRs. “CHRs are illegal because the powers vested by the Parliament on the two State institutions – Sri Lanka Customs and the IECD – had been taken away purportedly by a regulation, which is wrong,” he explained.
He also said that under environmental laws, the importer or any party involved in this waste issue could be brought before the law for the damages caused to the soil and polluting water due to the leakages from the waste loads that have been dumped in a hazardous manner and also for bringing waste into the country violating the NEA.
CEA Hazardous and Chemical Waste Department Head Ajith Weerasundara said the CEA was planning to re-send the cargo to the UK when its investigation was concluded and following the Court order.