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Coca-Cola in hot water after oil pipe contaminates drinking water used by 400,000 people


(Rukshana Rizwie)  Coca-cola, the soda giant, announced an ambitious plan this Tuesday. The company now riddled in controversy over a contamination issue said it would replenish all the water used in making its beverages by the end of 2015. That’s five years of its scheduled goal.

In retrospect the company may just have to rethink the numbers because over 500,000 cubic meters of water has already gone to waste. Coca-cola Sri Lanka has been treading in ethical grey area in a desperate attempt to diffuse the crisis.

Chairman of the Central Environment Authority, Professor Lal Dharmasiri however says that violation of the EPL from a company such as Coca-Cola is a grave concern and cannot be taken lightly

This past week, the company’s Environment Protection License was suspended, forcing the factory situated in Biyagama to an abrupt grinding halt. The company was found to be in direct violation of its EPL when news of the contamination surfaced.

Coca-Cola Sri Lanka responded to The Nation with alacrity regarding the contamination. A leakage purportedly from an underground fuel pipeline last Monday, the company claims was the cause of the contamination. Although the leak was plugged, oil had seeped far into the Kelani River.

Ranjith Perera, Deputy Manager of Western Production at the National Water Supply and Drainage Board recounted the 9-hour task to cleanse the Water treatment plant at Ambatale of the oil slick. “At around 7 am we noticed pools of oil floating on the water, upon closer inspection, we were convinced that it was a strong contaminant and shut down the plant.”

Floating containment booms was used to stop the spread of the oil while officials from the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) joined in to remove any residue that seeped to the surface. It was a continuous process of pumping and flushing out water to ensure that there was no traces of the oil.

To-date, Perera cannot be sure if it was actually diesel like the company claimed or any other benzene. Despite his best efforts, the NWSB recorded over 300 complaints from the Dehiwala alone with callers complaining of a stench and foul taste.

The Water Board has two intakes from the Kelani River, one at Biyagama, where 180,000 cubic meters of water is generated daily by an automated treatment plant and distributed to North Colombo, Ja-Ela and Kelaniya. The second plant is at Ambatale, where 500,000 cubic meters of water goes to the Dehiwela, Kaduwela, Maharagama, Maligakanda and Kolonnawa areas.

“Mistrust among the general public is a huge blow to the institution,” Perera said. “We’ve accounted for the damages in infrastructure and collateral breach of trust in claims that will now be put forward.”

Perera urges companies bordering the Kelani River with factories to stop green-washing. “Over 400,000 people depend on that source for drinking water and its imperative that companies try their best to keep it clean,” he added.

Before restoring water supply officials had carried out a grease content evaluation that showed grease at 0.2 mg per liter, the maximum acceptable level for drinking water.
To be sure of what the contaminant was, Chairman of Water Board Kuddoos Alahudeen Ansar said that sample of water which was taken before and after water supply was restored has been sent to India since they cannot be done here in Sri Lanka.

“It’s a benzene test for Phonolic aromatic hydrocarbon, which will tell us of the nature of the contaminant,” he said. The results of the tests are expected by Monday this week, until then Ansar says that he can’t be sure of what was mixed with water.

Chairman of the Central Environment Authority, Professor Lal Dharmasiri however says that violation of the EPL from a company such as Coca-Cola is a grave concern and cannot be taken lightly.

He empathized that the crisis cost the government more than the company in question. “We still don’t know the extent of the damage to the NSWB filters and clarifies,” he said. “The CEA itself had to employ so many people on a day when they were supposed to be granted leave. He said that CEA had to release water from the Laxapana reservoir to flush out the contaminated water.”

“Needless to say, the company will have to compensate,” he added. Reports allege that Coca-Cola Sri Lanka has been fined up to Rs.1 Billion, with several quarters claiming that the penalty to be unreasonably high.

Dharmasiri added that a committee comprising  officials from the CEA, NSWB, MEPA and the Disaster management Centre were in the process of submitting a list of recommendations to the company.

Coca-cola (1)
Contaminated water | Pics courtesy Water Board

“If Coca-Cola Sri Lanka complies, we will consider granting the EPL temporarily,” he said. “The full suspension of the EPL will only be lifted if and when the committee finds that the response from the company is satisfactory.”

The company claims that it is dead serious about water insecurity. As part of these efforts, the company according to its communiqué launched 209 community water projects in 61 countries, covering issues like improving access to safe drinking water and protecting watersheds.

It also partnered with more than half a dozen aid and development organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations Development Program and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, to help meet its goals.
Environmental experts have previously questioned Coca-Cola’s water stewardship activities, suggesting they are a way for the company to use its influence and money to deflect criticism away from its environmental record.

Responding to reports that an estimated 90 percent of all wastewater in developing countries is discharged, untreated, directly into rivers, lakes or oceans, senior director of global water stewardship at Coca-Cola, Greg Koch commented saying that “We wanted to make sure we were not contributing to that.”Unfortunately for Koch, that’s exactly what Coca-Cola Sri Lanka just did.