Asian Paper Mill, which last year was found to be a major factory responsible for polluting the Halda River, possibly the lone natural breeding ground of carp fish in South Asia, is accelerating its efforts to resume operations.
The factory management recently sought permission from the Department of Environment (DoE) claiming to have restored facilities to contain the pollution.
On July 23, DoE sought an opinion from both the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock in this regard, as the river was declared "Bangabandhu Fish Heritage" last year, following the factory's written request.
MA Salam, managing director of the factory, told The Daily Star that they have met the requirements stipulated by DoE and two teams formed by the department have already visited the plant and found everything to be in compliance.
"We hope to resume operations soon and will abide by the guideline to keep the environment safe," he said.
In August last year, Hathazari upazila administration, along with a DoE team, shut down the paper mill and slapped a Tk 20 lakh fine on it after a probe body found the factory releasing untreated liquid waste into a canal that ends up in the Halda River, causing the death of brood fish and other aquatic life.
The Water Development Board (WDB), under the water resources ministry, submitted their inspection report on August 16, a copy of which The Daily Star obtained.
As part of giving its opinion, WDB visited the factory at Nandirhar area of Hathazari upazila towards the end of July where it saw the few steps taken by the management -- including building a retaining wall against the drain via which the waste used to be released, repairing the effluent treatment plant (ETP), building a sludge bed and waste reservoir, and appointing a chemical engineer.
WDB suggested DoE appoint an observer to monitor the activities of the paper mill and submit an observation report after; if satisfactory, permission to resume operations can be given.
Akhil Kumar Biswas, chief engineer of the WDB south eastern zone, Chattogram, who inspected the factory last month, told The Daily Star that in their inspection, they found the ETP to be functioning properly.
"We opined that permission to allow operations could only be given after three months of observation, [after seeing] whether the ETP remains operational or not," he said.
The fisheries and livestock ministry, in its report, opined to allow the factory to resume operations based on three conditions -- monitoring the sludge and waste discharge method for two months, evaluating the standard of water sample of the canal adjacent to the factory, and reusing the water after recycling the waste in the factory.
Farhana Lovely, Chattogram district fisheries officer, told The Daily Star, "We clearly said their ETP must be functional and DoE can monitor the ETP operation for six months -- if all this is found to be satisfactory, DoE can allow them to resume operations," she said.
AKM Rafique Ahammed, director general of the DoE, told The Daily Star that the honourable High Court formed a committee several months ago to oversee mammals, mother fish, and Halda River's overall biodiversity.
"I asked the committee through a letter to inspect the real condition of the paper mill. We will act in accordance with their recommendations as Asian Paper Mill is known to violate the promise they make," he said.
"Halda is one of the most important rivers… which this year saw the largest amount of eggs hauled in the last 26 years, thanks to the drop in pollution. So, we can't let anyone destroy these," he added.
Deputy Commissioner of Chattogram district administration Md Elias Hossen, who is convener of the committee formed in May this year to protect dolphins, brood fish, and biodiversity of the river, told The Daily Star that the committee will inspect, with experts and concerned officials, the anti-pollution facilities which the factory claims to have reactivated.
"If everything is found to be satisfactory, we will recommend positively. Otherwise, it will remain shut down as it is now."
In 2013, the factory was fined Tk 2 lakh for pollution and a further Tk 1 crore 15 lakh for their ETP being dysfunctional.
DoE also fined the mill Tk 7,98,000 for releasing untreated sludge into a nearby canal in 2015.
Despite repeated action, the factory continued to pollute the canal, prompting DoE to shut it down in August 2019.