June 4, 2009

Industrial pollution chokes people, crops alike

Ammonia mixed toxic gas and urea dust emitted from Jamuna Fertiliser Factory (JFF) in Jamalpur have allegedly been wreaking havoc on the local environment and causing debilitating illnesses among the locals.

The toxic gas of the largest urea producing factory, at Tarandani of Sarishabari upazila in Tangail, has also been harming crops, trees, livestock, poultry and fish resources for the last 17 years. Many trees around the factory do not have a single leaf.

Locals held protest programmes--forming human chains, barricading the factory gate, submitting memorandums to the JFF authorities--but nothing was achieved. A number of locals have started moving out of their villages near the factory. Locals alleged that the factory officials paid no heed to their complaints over the years.

The JFF authorities claimed that they are releasing ammonia at a much lower level than the government set standards. However, officials concerned at the department of environment said they in the recent past did not conduct any test of ammonia concentration in the gas emitting from the JFF.

Since its inception the JFF has been producing 1,700 tonnes of urea per day, 5,60,000 tonnes a year. Urea is produced from ammonia and carbon dioxide gas. Chemical formaldehyde is also mixed with the urea to make it hard. Formaldehyde acts as a disinfectant and it kills most bacteria and fungi (including their spores).

Sources working in the factory said ammonia-mixed toxic inert gas is released into the environment through the vent stake. This has been going on every day since 1991, when the factory started its operation.

The factory has been releasing a large amount of urea dust that look like smoke through the blowers of the JFF plant, they said.

Locals told The Daily Star that crops, trees, poultry, livestock and fish in the adjacent Kandarpara, Tarakandi, Charpara and Dhuriarbhita villages have been dying due to the emissions of the factory. Croplands in the area have become infertile due to the pollution over the years, they claimed.

Jahirul Hassan, general manager (production) of JFF, told The Daily Star that emission of the inert gas and urea dust is a "normal matter" for all fertiliser factories in the world.

"We are trying to keep the design-based problems low and under the allowable percentage," he said.

During a visit to Kandapara village, The Daily Star correspondent had difficulty breathing as the smell of the urea dust and ammonia-mixed gas was overwhelming. The correspondent's eyes started to burn.

Most of the trees in the villages have already died and the water of the ponds there has become discoloured and fish cannot live in them.

Locals alleged that many have been suffering from diseases like asthma, bronchitis, different kinds of skin diseases and in some cases loss of sight.

Rina Begum, a housewife of Kandarpara village, said her three children have constantly been suffering from diseases over the years.

Marfat Ali of the same village said three of his six brothers and their families have already left the village unable to bear the pollution. "I will also leave the village as soon as possible with my wife and children," he said.

Shamsher Ali of the village said, "I am only 40 but I cannot see clearly anymore. My hair has fallen off due to the pollution."

Azizul Haque, 50, of Kandapara said last year taking loans from Krishi Bank he started a fish farm in his three ponds but fish worth around Tk 1 lakh died due to the toxic water.

"I went to the factory authorities, including high officials of the factory, and showed them dead fish but they would not even listen to me," he said.

The farmers in the area are the worst affected.

Razzak Ali, a farmer of Kandarpara village, said during the last boro season he cultivated boro rice on 35 bighas of land by taking advance payments from buyers. His entire yield was wasted, the grains of paddy contained no rice.

"I invested Tk 36,000. Now I do not know how I am going to repay," he said.

Most farmers in the village--Tota Miah, Joinal Abedin, Shamsher Ali, Khanu Miah, Badal Miah, Abdul Aziz, Marfat Ali and Suruj Ali--are in similar troubles.

Mir Mozaffar Ali, former managing director (MD) of JFF who recently retired, told The Daily Star that the government-run urea factory has been releasing a small amount of ammonia-mixed inert gas and urea dust into the local environment. The allowable emission of inert gas is 50ppm (particles per microgram) and the JFF usually emits only 10ppm, he said.

"Local residents are exaggerating the problem," he claimed.

Md Shahjahan, managing director (MD) of JFF, yesterday said only a small amount of ammonia gas is being discharged from the factory which is very normal. The claims of locals are over exaggerated, he added.

An official at the department of environment said they do not have enough staff to conduct such tests away from the capital.

"We have only three inspectors to cover 17 districts. The government does not provide any regular vehicles for inspections. How can we conduct regular tests of such industries," said the official requesting anonymity.

"Maybe the industry is emitting toxic gas more than the set standard," the official said.

The situation is so grave that Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation (BCIC) decided to compensate a number of the locals for their sufferings and allocated Tk 20 lakh for the purpose. The upazila administration has already made a list of 168 people eligible for compensation but many have been left out, locals alleged.

Upazila administration sources, however, said they are yet to receive any complaint regarding affected people being left out.

Asked why the upazila administration is giving compensation despite his claims, Md Shahjahan yesterday said due to unavoidable circumstances the factory was closed for a while and ammonia gas discharge increases when the factory is closed. People were compensated for damages done by the excessive discharge of gas.

He said the factory is now fully functional and there should not be any problem of excessive gas emission.


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