ISLAMABAD: Residents of I sectors of the federal capital have long been suffering industrial air pollution.
Now, Pakistan’s chief environmentalist has promised action against the polluters after seeing the enormity of the problem during an early morning drive through the area on Sunday.
“I was simply shocked,” said Dr M. Khurshid, Director General Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (EPA) about the grey smoke that greeted him on the drive that steel factories in the area start belching out around 5am every day.
Dr Khurshid plans to serve notices on the owners of the steel mills “immediately”.
Citizens skeptical of latest plan of action against polluters
But the residents of the area are skeptical about government translating its plans into action. Inaction has been the hallmark of all such plans in the past, according to the residents.
A senior official of the Climate Change Division of the federal government confirmed the citizens’ skepticism.
“EPA had forced the steel mill owners to install air filter bags but the agency failed to follow it up and monitor the levels of emissions from the mills and ensure that the filters were working properly,” the official confided to Dawn.
He explained how Environment Protection Agency never checked if the owners of the steel mills operated the filters that were supposed to absorb noxious content from burning and melting of scrap to produce steel.
The smell around the mills is so toxic that it forces drivers to roll up windows of their vehicles while driving past and pedestrians and cyclists cover their faces instinctively.
The official explained how all steel mills used low-grade bundled scrap to produce steel.
“The low-grade bundled scrap is more often than not contaminated with oil and grease and even paint. And the reason we see thick black smoke is because the mill owners do not operate filters because operational costs run as high as the cost of one melting process of scrap that lasts three to four hours roughly,” the official explained.
“The Supreme Court ordered the shutdown of two steel mills in 2007 and then another two four years later for violating the environmental laws.”
Retired government officer Abdul Haq takes an early walk every day and has been doing so for many years.
He wears a wet handkerchief across his face like a bandana.
“I can’t help it. The smell is just too strong sometimes. The mills operate non-stop round the week. Our children breathe the same contaminated air,” said Mr Haq, who lives across the greenbelt from one of the steel mills.
The residents in the neighbourhood complained that the smoke was so thick in the early morning that it seemed to be choking the whole Islamabad.
“It is easy to conclude that the city managers lack resolve to deal with this problem,” said a shopkeeper in the I-10 Markaz.
And the working conditions in these steel mills are so bad that they sap the life out of the work force.
“If the smoke is so dangerous for the residents in the area what about the workers in the mills? We deal with it everyday,” said Abdul Razaq, who has been working in a steel mill at I-9 for three years without proper gear.
“Working in a steel mill is hot and hard,” said Mohammad Ramzan.
As serious as the problem of air pollution from these mills is, there are no quick fixes, said the EPA director general.
“With the environment tribunal non-functional, there is little EPA can do except serving notices on the owners.
“However, we intend to come down hard on the violators of the environmental laws. It is imperative that the media highlights the problem and creates awareness about how steel mills in the sectors are contaminating the air,” said Dr M. Khurshid, arguing that it was about time the government relocated the mills far away from the residential sectors.
The air pollution caused by the mills is intolerable. It is affecting the quality of air in Rawalpindi and Islamabad alike,” said Dr Khurshid.
When two steel mills were approached, the security and even some labourers became hostile. “Photography is not permitted. The owners of the steel mills do not approve it. Several reporters from TV channels came time and again and were dealt with accordingly,” said one watchman of a steel mill at the I-9 sector.
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2014