Environment polluters and accident-prone industries have turned ‘environment-friendly’ overnight due to an amendment to the environment conservation act, according to environment experts.
However, Brac university emeritus professor Ainun Nishat said LPG may be friendlier to the environment than other sources, but its transportation, processing and bottling are highly risky. So logically these factories were included on the black list. An environmental impact assessment is necessary to establish these industries. The assessment identifies the risks that need to be addressed.
“So it is not fair to include it on the white list under any circumstances,” Ainun Nishat told Prothom Alo.
According to environmentalists, the act has been amended to give special facilities to set up liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) factories and petrochemical terminals.
The owners of these industries are politically influential top businessmen.
Such factories have been established in the vicinity of the mangrove forest Sundarbans, a world heritage site.
These industries were on the blacklist, identified as serious polluters till date.
Earlier, it was essential to meet eight conditions including environmental impact assessment in order to receive permission for such industries.
The amendment to the environment conservation act will now place these industries on the white list.
As a result of inclusion on the white list, risky chemical factories will no longer require environmental impact assessment. They need not provide any information about the measures to control pollution. They will not be held accountable for any accident or where and how the industrial waste will be dumped.
Such chemical factories could be established after submission of primary information, establishment clearance and local permission.
Liquefied gas and petrochemical being flammable substances, such factories are established far away from residential areas. If any accident takes place, the impact spreads in the surrounding area. Unfortunately, LPG factories are set up in the residential area in the country. Many of them are in the vicinity of the Sundarbans.
Top business groups have been eager to set up LPG factories and petrochemical terminals for a couple of years.
According to the environment and forest ministry, three influential industrialists have been seeking permissions to establish LPG in the environmentally critical area near the Sundarbans for the last two years. These industrialists have connections with top politicians. The law has been amended to facilitate these influential businessmen. Bangladesh LPG Owners Association president is Beximco Group vice chairman Salman F Rahman who is also adviser to the prime minister on private sector affairs.
The environment conservation act (1997) was amended through a gazette issued by the environment and forest ministry on 24 December 2017. It was not mentioned in the gazette signed by the secretary at the time Ishtiaq Ahmed why the industries on the black list were included on the white list.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, Ishtiaq Ahmed said, "Liquefied natural gas is highly environment-friendly. It does not damage soil or water. As a result, such factories in the neighbouring countries are included on the white list. The factories were included on the black list as the matter had not been properly clarified. The act has been amended in view of global practice and necessity and the factories have been included on the white list."
Former environment and forest minister and current water resources minister Anwar Hossain Manju said, "It was a wrong decision to include the industries on the black list and so we have amended it."
Environmentalists are displeased with the government’s decision. They maintain that the LPG and petrochemical industry has serious environmental risks.
Developed countries ensure the highest level of risk management and environmental security measures before initiating such industries.
Over the last five decades, at least 10 incidents of gas and chemical industry accidents occurred all over the world including in the US, UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico, Romania and India, and twice in France.
Terming LPG as a ‘mobile bomb’, Indian environmentalists recently raised their voice to ensure stringent safety measures in such industries.
Badrul Imam, professor of Dhaka University’s geology department, said, “Most of the countries set up LPG and petrochemical industry far away from human settlement to mitigate the environmental risks as these are highly combustible. But we are constructing LPG industries in populated areas.”
Terming the decision to include the LPG industries on the green list as suicidal, professor Badrul urged the government to rethink the decision of establishing such industries without taking proper safety measures.
A 10 km area surrounding the the Sundarbans was declared an ecologically critical area (ECA). However, the environment ministry submitted a list of 150 industrial projects there. Among them, seven LPG and a gas cylinder factory are functioning in the ECA.
The national environment committee in its last meeting suggested permitting 16 more industrial set up in the ECA including 8 LPG factories.
A company, Index LPG, has already set up their factory in Rampal upazila’s Dwigraj union. The company also owns several industrial plots in Jaymani village, some two kilometres from the Sundarbans. They also announced they will set up an LPG factory in Patuakhali’s Kalapara area.
Several more organisations including an NGO named TMS, as well as JB LP, and Deccan LPG are planning to establish factories there.
Environment and forest ministry secretary Abdullah Al Mohsin Chowdhury told Prothom Alo, “We have provided the High Court the list of industries in ECA as per their direction. We will follow HC’s directives in this regard.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage committee in its 41st meeting last year asked Bangladesh to initiate a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) on southwest region of the country including the Sundarbans.
They also maintained that no heavy industry or infrastructure should be set up in the area before SEA is completed. But the suggestion has been flouted.
Rights activist Sultana Kamal has told Prothom Alo that the government’s decision to include LPG industry on the green list would only hasten Sundarban’s destruction.
She also said the decision was taken to appease some close quarters of the government
*This story, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam and Galib Ashraf.