Wanton neglect, irreversible loss
After around two decades and countless deadlines, a tannery estate with a fully functioning CETP that would ensure the environment is not ravaged by toxic waste is still a far cry from what was planned.
Untreated industrial waste keeps polluting the Dhaleshwari river as the CETP at the country's lone tannery estate in Savar cannot function at full throttle yet. Also, it has myriad inadequacies.
For many long years, environmentalists called for the government to relocate the tanneries from Hazaribagh, a densely populated area in the city, and set up an estate with a modern effluent treatment plant on the city outskirts.
The much-awaited Savar Tannery Industrial Estate project was initiated in 2003 and the rest is a long sequence of events.
After years of foot-dragging, tanneries were shifted to Savar in 2016 and got up and running the next year. Since then, they have been releasing waste water into the river with the CETP yet to be ready for use.
The CETP finally went into operation in June this year -- nine years after the project was taken up and five years after the start of physical work.
But things did not improve much.
Currently, the CETP can treat 25,000 cubic metres of liquid waste, while 132 factories at the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) tannery estate produce up to 40,000 cubic metres.
So, on a busy day, the authorities have to release an additional 15,000 cubic metres of liquid waste directly into the river through an alternative channel, according to a recent report of the Department of Environment (DoE).
Also, chromium-mixed water, which was supposed to be treated separately, is going to the river untreated.
Another problem with this CETP is it cannot treat salt as well though the tanneries use a huge quantity of salt to process rawhides.
BSCIC officials say that due to non-cooperation of tanners, the CETP is not working properly.
"They [tannery owners] actually don't want the CETP to run smoothly," said BSCIC Chairman Mostaque Hassan.
Shahin Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Tannery Association, however, dismissed the BSCIC chairman's allegations as baseless.
"BSCIC is to blame for the malfunctioning of the CETP," he said.
And meantime, the Dhaleshwari and the communities living around it bear the brunt of it all.
During a visit last week, it was seen the CETP was releasing untreated black liquid waste through its main channel.
Asked, an official who would not speak on the record but introduced himself as an engineer, said they were releasing untreated waste as they were cleaning the CETP.
But locals say they see it happening every day.
Mongol Mia from Jhauchar village who was trying to catch fish from a small boat said how could fish survive here as they release waste water into the river every evening. Sometimes they release it in broad daylight.
"Even last year I could catch some fish, but this year there are almost no fish. Many people used to fish during the monsoon, but that doesn't happen anymore," he added.
According to a 2003 memorandum of understanding between the government and tannery owners and footwear exporters, the government was supposed to set up a CETP by 2005 at a cost of Tk 175 crore.
But nothing happened in the next few years.
Then in 2006, the caretaker government re-examined the cost of the proposed CETP putting it at Tk 350 crore and asking the industry owners to share the burden. But the tannery owners balked at the suggestion.
In 2009, the High Court directed the government to ensure the tanneries were relocated from the city's Hazaribagh area by February 2010 or the industries would face closure. The HC also ordered the DoE to have the industries set up ETPs by June 2010.
After coming to power in 2009, the Awami League government moved to relocate the tanneries to Savar. The industries ministry kept seeking time extensions from the HC as negotiations with the tanners dragged on.
Although the work for the CETP project was supposed to start in 2003, it actually began in 2012, almost a decade later.
A Bangladesh-China joint venture was awarded the construction of the CETP through a bidding process in 2012. But due to bureaucratic tangles and non-cooperation of the tanners, the work got delayed.
In its second revision in August 2013, the project's tenure was extended to June 2016 and the cost hiked to Tk 1,078 crore.
Later, the Executive Committee on National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved the extension of the project in its fourth revision, where the expenditure was cut by Tk 63.15 crore to Tk 1,015.56 crore in 2016.
The tenure was extended for the third time in January 2017 to June 2019, keeping the cost unchanged.
The deadline passed many times as the tanners were not ready to move to Savar yet.
In 2016, the government gave them a 72-hour ultimatum, but only a few complied and most of them stayed put.
In January 2017, Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan, senior secretary to the industries ministry, said the government would prevent tanners from transporting rawhides to Hazaribagh after January 31, 2017.
They fixed March 31 as the deadline for shifting. And finally, the tanneries moved to Savar from Hazaribagh.
Asked about the unprecedented delay in project implementation, Jitendra Nath Paul, former project director of the Savar tannery estate, said it was mainly because of legal complexities.
The construction work of the tannery estate was completed in last June.
On June 27 this year, the government terminated the contract with the Bangladesh-China joint venture and handed over the responsibilities of the CETP to Tannery Industries Estate Wastage Treatment Plant Company Ltd, a newly formed company managed by tanners and BSCIC officials.
But the Department of Environment said the CETP has never been fully functional, and tannery industries have been polluting the Dhaleshwari since the beginning.
Although the CETP has been running for some time now, the online monitoring system has not been installed as per the agreement and testing facilities at its laboratory are inadequate.
Only four of eight kinds of testing facilities were installed in the laboratory, and a mini workshop was not constructed at the CETP site.
Jitendra Nath Paul, former project director of the Savar tannery industrial estate, said there are some components of the project that were not implemented.
So, the government may now take up a Balancing, Modernisation, Rehabilitation and Expansion (BMRE) project to make the CETP fully operational.
Regarding the Bangladesh-China joint venture company, he said the government has deducted Tk 26 crore (32 lakh USD) from the total payable amount of Tk 492 crore to the construction company as penalty, as per the agreement.
Recently, after visiting the tanneries and testing the water quality of the Dhaleshwari, a group of experts from the Monitoring and Enforcement wing of the DoE prepared a report where they recommended shutting down the tannery estate until the CETP is not fully functional.
The report, which was sent to the parliamentary standing committee on the environment ministry, mentioned the BSCIC authorities have been polluting the Dhaleshwari with liquid waste since 2016.
The BSCIC is releasing waste water into the river through three pipe lines. Besides, it could not take any measures to manage solid waste generated in the tanneries.
"Many times, the DOE tested sample from the CETP-treated water, and found the parameters higher than standards allowed by Bangladesh Environment Conservation Rule 1997."
The report mentions, "The authorities have violated the directives of the High Court about not polluting rivers with industrial waste."
In August, the parliamentary standing committee, on the basis of this report, recommended that the environment ministry shut down the tannery estate.
Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chief of the JS body, said they will hold a meeting to get an update about BSCIC measures on closure of the tannery estate.
"If they fail to do it, the standing committee will come up with its next course of recommendation," Saber, a ruling Awami League MP, said.
BSCIC Chairman Mostaque Hassan said tanners are using two to three times more water in their tanneries.
Also, the tannery owners throw all types of effluent including solid waste inside the CETP, which is totally unacceptable.
"By throwing all types of effluent including chromium into the pipe line of the CETP, they are polluting the environment to an alarming extent."
The BSCIC chief also alleged the tanners were not supposed to drain out the chromium-mixed water to the main channel of the CETP. But they are doing it.
He said tannery owners are out to make sure the CETP fails in a planned manner.
Mostaque said around Tk 36 crore is needed to run the CETP, but the tannery owners are not willing to pay the money.
He, however, opposed the recommendation that the tannery estate be shut down until the CETP functions properly. Rather, he said, he wanted the tannery owners to cooperate properly and make the CETP functional.
Shahin Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Tannery Association, rejected all the allegations made by the BSCIC chairman.
Talking to The Daily Star, he said tannery owners do not have any power to bring change in any establishment of the CETP.
"BSCIC will have to shoulder the responsibilities for the non-functioning CETP. Because it's their project and they are yet to hand over the responsibility to us," he also said.