Danger of another Uma Oya in Central Expressway

CEA approves third stage without geological surveys in tunnel areas.

The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) has approved construction of the third section of the Central Expressway (CE III) without the required geological surveys in areas where three tunnels are to be bored — even after the Uma Oya disaster.
The licence was granted due to the Highways Ministry’s urgency to sign the agreement with the developer. “The CEA was told to place conditions on the approval and to give it quickly,” an authoritative transport sector official said.

With its complicated terrain and land acquisition requirements, the 32.5 kilometre CE III from Pothuhera to Galagedara is tipped to be one of the most expensive road initiatives undertaken in recent times. The ministry recently said it would award the Rs 134.9 billion contract to Japan’s Taisei Corporation and that construction would start in September.

However, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for CE III clearly states that, while bore-hole tests were done during feasibility studies, further studies on geological and soil conditions around the proposed tunnels were necessary prior to implementation. The Sunday Times obtained the relevant reports and CEA’s 12-page approval letter through a Right to Information application.

The EIA was commissioned by the Road Development Authority (RDA) from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of Sri Jayewardenapura. It said human settlements were present in all areas where tunnels are to be built. It found the groundwater table to be very shallow, especially in areas around the first tunnel. This meant the proposed tunnelling could significantly affect surrounding groundwater.

The report also said all the tunnelling sites had weak geological conditions in terms of rock weathering, groundwater stability and slope stability. It was necessary to investigate subsurface geological conditions by drilling up to the possible basement rock under guidance of a geologist and geotechnical engineer. Detailed surface geological and structural geological mapping was necessary before each tunnel is built.

None of these studies has yet been done. But the CEA has granted environmental approval for implementation of CE III without waiting for their outcomes. Permission is valid for three years. There are 93 conditions attached to the licence. Among other things, it states that the RDA shall carry out “detail [sic] investigations on subsurface geology by means of boreholes [sic] tests, seismic tests, geological mapping, etc., under the guidance of geologists and geotechnical engineer/s…”

The CEA calls for certain designs to be adopted to “mitigate/minimise slope failures, landslides, fall out of rocks, propagation of cracks across weathered rock layers, seepage of excessive amounts of groundwater, etc.” There are several stipulations related to groundwater.

But CEA’s approval for the Uma Oya project, which is now mired in controversy, was also subject to similar conditions which were subsequently not enforced. This has led to a massive water leak in the 15.4km Karandagolla tunnel, the drying up of groundwater and collapse of and damage to hundreds of houses.

Worryingly, CEA Chairman Lal Mervin Dharmasiri said he had no knowledge of issues related to the CE III approval. He said the Acting Director General of the Environmental Management and Assessment Division was responsible. “I have to study this,” he said, four months after the CEA gave its assent to the project. “Without studying it, I’m not in a position to comment.”
But the Sunday Times reliably learns that pressure from the Highways Ministry to expedite clearance caused the CEA to repeat the process it adopted with regards to Uma Oya. The Government is speeding ahead with all sections of the Central Expressway despite strong concerns regarding environmental and economic feasibility.

“If there are recommendations for further geological surveys to be conducted before the CE III project commences, how can the CEA grant approval before knowing the results of such studies?” asked a senior official, on condition of anonymity. “What if the outcomes say that the respective areas are not suitable for the expressway to pass through?”

By law, this would mandate an immediate cancellation of the CEA approval and, if necessary, legal action. But officials admitted that this has been observed in the breach. There was no guarantee that enforcement will occur this time around, particularly because “one State institution (CEA) is usually reluctant to litigate against another State institution (RDA)”.

CE III will be four-lane carriageway with four interchanges, 12 main bridges and 17 viaducts across the floodplains of three major rivers—Rambukkan Oya, Kuda Oya and Kospothu Oya. It will have 106 culverts, 23 underpasses, 14 overpasses and three tunnels. Certain sections run through steep mountain slopes while others run across paddy fields and low-lying areas.

More than 1,162.5 acres occupied by 2,069 households (8,465 people) in 97 villages will be hit, requiring permanent relocation for 857 of them. The CEA has instructed the RDA to compensate for the loss of buildings and private lands, and to determine the entitlements of persons on a project-specific entitlement matrix based on the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy. The RDA has not followed the NIRP in recent years, opting to take over lands under emergency procedures that leave affected parties without compensation for years.

The EIA report admits that: “Acquisition of a paddy field for the proposed project may have an adverse impact on the availability of arable wetlands in the three districts as the expressway traverses through paddy lands, through a considerable length of it. Even though such a selection of lands saves the high lands with human settlements, there is no way to replace the quantity of paddy fields. People of the project affected communities are highly concerned about the acquisition of paddy fields as they have been the main means of their sustenance for centuries. A historical and ancestral value is found in some paddy lands belonging to laymen and they enjoy the possession of them as a social status.”

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