GARBAGE SCAM: WHO WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE BY THE LAW?
What is the issue?
Sri Lanka has been struggling with the issue of foreign waste being piled up at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone that surfaced during the past few weeks. It was a difficult journey to bring the issue into the light and the past circumstances had shown that it would be even harder to uncover those involved in this fraudulent act.
Customs seized more than 100 containers of hazardous waste materials in the guise of mattresses imported from a company in the United Kingdom. The first 130 containers were brought to Sri Lanka in 2017. The customs stated that there are 111containers in the CICT terminal of Colombo port and 130 in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone.
The consignment of garbage had been left in the Free Trade Zone for about 16 months without proper storage facilities. Reviewing a video of the garbage sent by the Customs, seemed to include decaying matter with maggots, plastic, glass, and carpets that cannot be re-used. The presence of clinical waste and toxic chemicals were a mere question initially which was later confirmed by Customs and CEA.
Following a foul smell emanating from the containers, Customs investigations revealed the possibility of the presence of human remains inside the containers.
If human remains were actually found inside these containers, NHS hospitals would have established a resolution on Sri Lanka, for their struggle to dispose of anatomical waste.
Who is responsible?
Even though the names of the companies who made the shipment from the UK were attainable, they were found to be defunct.
According to Customs, the main organizations involved in this importation are Hayley’s Free Zone, ETL Colombo Pvt. Ltd and Ceylon Metal Processing Corporation Pvt. Ltd.
The CEO of the Ceylon Metal Processing Corporation stated that the contents of the containers were brought in for reprocessing and it was the responsibility of Hayley’s to carry out the processing on their behalf.
He denied having any direct responsibility concerning the hazardous contents imported while being careful enough to not to reveal the UK supplier of these containers, Vengaads Limited.
Perhaps they were trying to hide the fact that an individual named Vegadasa Muthramar, director of Ceylon Metal Processing Corporation (Pvt) Ltd, who as per company documents serves as a shareholder of Vengaads Limited.
Hayley’s Free Zone Private Limited denied having any involvement in the issue regardless of the evident increase in the number of garbage containers on their premises from 2017 to 2019.
Director of the Hayleys Free Zone, Asanka Ratnayake identified ETL Colombo Pvt. Ltd as the freight forwarder as an associate company of Ceylon Metal Processing Corporation.
It is interesting that this foreign garbage consignment that had been polluting Sri Lanka for approximately 16 months, was left unnoticed by the Central Environment Authority and the BOI who had granted permission for this operation.
Many desperate excuses were given in order to justify the importation when the issue first surfaced. TheDirector of the Hazardous and Chemical Waste Management Unit at the CEA Ajith Weerasundara stated that the containers could have been imported to Sri Lanka mistakenly.
What were the responses given to the current situation by the respective authorities?
Central Environment Authority stated that Sri Lanka did not have the means and technology to reprocess the present waste materials in Katunayake even though the containers were brought on the claims of reprocessing. Customs further mentioned that the government is another party that should be held responsible for this matter.
The Customs presented the names of the importers and guaranteed that these containers were cleared with correct documentation.
How did these containers reach Sri Lanka? Has this situation violated any subsisting laws?
Several people initially inferred that these waste containers were imported to Sri Lanka based on an extraordinary Gazette that was signed by the former Minister of Finance, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to be re-processed while few others denied any connections between the two.
Attorney-at-Law, Janaka Edirisinghe disputed the interpretation stating that the gazette has not permitted the Customs to accept foreign garbage into the country. He further noted that accepting waste from foreign countries is a blatant violation of the Customs Ordinance. In addition to the re-exportation of the current garbage consignment, the respective companies who provided Customs with false information and its Board of Directors should be held legally responsible, he added.
Recent News1st investigations revealed that the gazette issued in 2013 signed by then Finance Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa authorizing a new company named Hub Operation to re-export imported products following a value addition process that had to be conducted in a special storage facility. It is in this guise that the containers were imported to Sri Lanka. The Customs were permitted to inspect goods brought under the regulations of this gazette.
The importation of garbage has violated the main provisions of the Basel Convention. The Basel Convention is an international contract that prevents hazardous waste from being moved between countries, specifically from developed countries to less-developed ones. The transnational movements were possible on the conditions that both countries were aware and agreed on a written document with all the necessary information regarding the transaction.
What are the legal actions taken to confront this issue?
The Court Of Appeals issued an order on 31st of July 2019 preventing the waste containers found in the Colombo Port and Katunanyake Free Trade Zone from being relocated within the country.
Additionally, the Court of Appeal declared that the waste containers should not be re-exported without the consent of the court. The case filed by the CEA regarding the importation has received Court approval to have proceeded.
Furthermore, the COA has summoned the respondents mentioned in the case to appear in court on the 20th of September. The Hayleys Free Zone Limited, ETL Private Limited, the BOI, the CEA, the Director-General of Customs, and the Attorney General have been named as respondents.