One mill killing Karnaphuli
With hills and trees on both sides, the view of the Karnaphuli from Rangunia upazila's Lichu Bagan Mason Ghat is breathtaking. But that's where the good things end.
If you take a stroll along the river or go near the water, you would know why. There is a strong stench of chemicals from the water. And if you look closer, you would see a flow of whitish water near the bank.
Mohammed Haroon, a local boatman, said, “If you touch the water, your hands will itch. Large dead fish float on the water if they get in contact the whitish flow. And this could be seen 10 kilometres downstream and the horrid stench is there too.”
The reason the whitish fluid makes its way into the Karnaphuli, the lifeline of Chittagong, is the Karnaphuli Paper Mills (KPM). The country's largest and state-owned paper manufacturer is polluting the river by discharging thousands of tonnes of untreated toxic waste every day.
The factory, with no effluent treatment plant (ETP), has been dumping hazardous substances into the river since its inception in 1953.
For the people of Rangunia, the floating waste and the smell are not new. But for the port city dwellers, it is a big concern now because the Chittagong Wasa is going to collect water for the city from this area.
The Wasa hopes to supply 14 crore litres of water daily from November this year by collecting water from Pomra, a place only 3.6km downstream from the factory.
“Our treatment plant does not have the capacity to treat the toxic chemicals of the KPM. We have written to the KPM and the Department of Environment (DoE) authorities several times -- the latest a month ago -- to address the issue, but to no avail. We have to continue with our project [Karnaphuli Water Supply Project] as the city is facing a serious water crisis,” said AKM Fazlullah, managing director of Chittagong Wasa.
Environmentalists and experts said the affected water would be a health hazard.
“The Karnaphuli Paper Mills uses around 24 types of chemicals, including chlorine, sulphur, bleaching and sodium chlorite. When the untreated effluent is discharged into the water, residues of the toxic chemicals remain. So the river water becomes caustic with high pH, high suspended solid and low dissolved oxygen. That is why water quality deteriorates and fish die. Even the acrid smell does not go away after cooking the affected fish,” said Edris Ali, an associate professor of the chemistry department at Government Mohsin College.
He has been researching on the Karnaphuli's water quality since early 1990's.
Visiting the Karnaphuli Paper Mills recently, this correspondent found that some of the effluent was being reused but a lot of it was being discharged directly into the river through a pipe.
Boatmen and locals alleged that large fish that come to the river from the Kaptai Lake were often found dead whenever the KPM discharges its waste.
Contacted over the phone yesterday morning, KPM Managing Director Mosabberul Islam, who has been working there since March 2014, said the daily effluent discharge was around 2,500 tonnes. “Of those, only 1,500 are discharged without treatment the rest are treated inside the factory before discharge.”
Mosabberul said they would improve the existing effluent discharging system by August this year and it would require Tk 20 lakh, which would be taken from the maintenance costs of the factory.
He said earlier government had allocated Tk 8 crore for the ETP project. But during tender of the project it was found that at least 40 crore would be needed for a modern ETP.
When asked whether the cheap alternative would be as effective as an ETP, he said since only a few parameters of the effluent like the pH, suspended solid and temperature, were the problem, they would be able to neutralise them before releasing into the river.
“The DoE is also positive about the project and sent a positive report recently about the outcome of the project on May 25,” said Mosabberul, who has been transferred from the KPM but would stay until the project completed.
Sources in the DoE said the KPM had applied for an environment clearance certificate in May 2011 but was denied as five parameters of its effluent were above the limit.
The DoE issued show-cause notices on the authorities several times.
Factories are classified into the four categories Green, Orange-A, Orange-B and Red when they are given environment certificates. The KPM is considered a red category factory. DoE senior chemist Kamrul Hasan said the red category industries are those that could impact the environment the most. Their rules categorise paper, tannery, chemical colour, cement, sugar, power generation factories as red.
In October 2015, the department fined the KPM Tk 1.85 crore for polluting the river.
Mosabberul said they have appealed to the secretary of the environment minister for exempting them from the fine but the date of the hearing is yet to be set.
Officials of the DoE had several meetings with the KPM authorities to address its issue. The last one was held on May 11.
“We have had two successful meetings. Although the factory is old, its technology is quite good. Not all the toxic effluent is discharged into the river, rather some are reused. The KPM authorities assured us of taking an alternative measure within four to five months to treat effluent,” said Mokbul Hossain, deputy director of the DoE in Chittagong.
“Hopefully, we would get some positive results within six months,” he added.
A source present at the meeting, quoting the KPM authorities, said that the factory would set up a settling tank, a dosing tank, and a pH correction unit to neutralise effluent before discharging it into the river.
They said they could not establish an ETP before 2018 and hoped to continue with the alternative measures until then.
“I am sceptical about the factory actually taking initiatives and spending money to save the environment. They [factory officials] gave such assurances several times before, but those did not materialise,” said Edris Ali, vice-president of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon Chittagong city unit.
“Actually the paper mill is taking away more than it is giving,” he said.