Over 60 per cent of the dockyards in Barishal division have been running for years with complete disregard to environment protection laws, not only damaging whole ecosystems and livelihoods but also depriving the government of revenue.
Building, repairing and maintaining water vessels require the use of a number of toxic chemicals. It also leads to the release of rust, welding and painting residues, impurities, used lubricants and oils, dust and generates substantial noise.
Such aspects of commercial activities which have an environmental impact and the methods of addressing them need to be delineated by industries in an environment management plan, which must be submitted for obtaining an environment clearance certificate.
The certificate is mandatory, similar to what a trade licence is, for each and every type of industry and project as per the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 (Amended 2010).
Moreover, shipbuilding is listed in the Red category of industries by the Department of Environment (DoE).
This means that dockyards need to first obtain a Location Clearance Certificate and then an Environment Impact Assessment approval before they can be issued the certificate.
The environment clearance fees are based on the amount of investment an industry is making. The minimum is Tk 1,500 for investments of Tk 1 lakh to Tk 5 lakh. The highest is Tk 4 lakh for investments of Tk 500 crore to Tk 1,000 crore.
The certificate has to be renewed annually for a quarter of the fees.
Each of the dockyards has invested Tk 2 crore to Tk 5 crore that also includes land price.
After bearing the expenses that range from Tk 2 lakh to Tk 3 lakh per trip, big operators make a profit of around Tk 5 lakh to Tk 20 lakh from every launch per month, insiders said.
Just 13 out of the 37 dockyards present in Barishal sadar and Nesarabad (Swarupkathi) upazilas have obtained the environment clearance certificate, as per the DoE Barishal divisional office.
The Daily Star found five of the establishments on the banks of the Kirtankhola river and the rest by the Sandhya river.
Their owners blatantly deny the pollution resulting from their operations year round on watercrafts of all types and sizes, ranging from 20 to 200 feet and including passenger launches, cargo vessels and oil tankers.
Among them is Saidur Rahman Rintu, owner of one of the biggest passenger vessel operators, Sundarban Navigation, and vice president of the Barishal Launch Owners Association.
His response to his dockyard not having the certificate: "We will take steps in this regard soon".
The excuse was nearly the same when the question was posed to another big operator, Rejin-ul-Kabir, owner of Surovi Navigation Company.
Such law violations carry a penalty of either 5 years' jail time or a Tk 5 lakh fine or both.
But environmental activists say there is no instance of the DoE cracking down on the malpractice.
The dockyards are damaging the environment right before everyone's eyes but there seems to be no monitoring from the authorities, said Lincoln Bayen, coordinator of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association.
So it came as no surprise when the question arose of whether mobile courts would be run against the dockyards, DoE Divisional Director Abdul Halim echoed the dockyard owners, saying: "soon".