KARACHI: How the law is ignored, often by its own custodians, was evident at a public hearing held on Wednesday at a local hotel, where officials representing the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and the forest department came up with vague replies when they were repeatedly asked if a no-objection certificate (NOC) was required for cutting down 882 mangroves, a tree species officially declared ‘protected’.

The project under discussion at the programme was the LNG (liquefied natural gas) import terminal two proposed by Pakistan Gasport Limited (PGPL) at Hafeez Island, Chara Chan Waddio Creek at Mazar Point in the Port Qasim area.

The project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) study has been conducted by Global Environmental Management Services (GEMS).

It was the second time that Sepa was conducting a public hearing on the same project, though once again without a mandatory NOC from the relevant [forest] department on mangroves’ cutting.

This point had emerged as a major concern during the last hearing, which was later declared void by Sepa on grounds of lack of public participation, and similar observations were made during the hearing.

‘To say that so and so department has given an approval for the project is not sufficient’

More frustrating this time, perhaps, was to see government officials’ inability to refer to law and take clear stance on the matter of an NOC, which is required in case of an EIA/IEE (Initial Environmental Examination).

Clause 2C, Section 9, of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Review of Initial Environmental Examination and Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations, 2014 (available on Sepa’s website) under the headline ‘Filing of IEE, EIA and environmental checklist’ says: “No objection certificates from the relevant departments in case of EIA shall be the part of reports”.

Notwithstanding this regulatory requirement, especially in a case which involves destruction of a large number of a protected species, quite a few people, perhaps out of ignorance, insisted that the word ‘NOC’ was not used in Sepa rules as a mandatory requirement for the EIA report.

“There is no mention of the word ‘NOC’ [in the Sepa rules]. The forest department should clear its position on mangroves’ protected status, though,” said Saquib Ejaz Hussain, an air quality expert currently associated with Environmental Management Consultants (EMC).

While his remarks were praised by the project proponent representatives, some others from the audience asked Sepa and forest department officials to break their silence and share what the law said.

“The reason this public hearing got delayed was because we have been writing letters to relevant departments and waiting for their responses. The project proponent has already acquired project approvals from a number of departments, including the defence ministry, and is also in contact with the forest department,” said Imran Sabir, a deputy director at Sepa.

He, however, avoided specific mention of the word ‘NOC’, which in this case should also have been acquired from the forest department and attached with the EIA report for sharing during the public hearing.

On his part, the forest department represented by Arif Khokhar could not explain what the government meant by a “protected status”, though he did admit that the entire mangrove cover in Sindh was declared protected in 2010.

When pushed further to take a clear stance whether an NOC from the forest department was required for cutting mangroves, he said: “The forest department should be taken on board.”

Earlier, he had told the audience that his department had shared its concerns in writing on the LNG terminal venture with the project proponent.

“The EIA requirements include obtaining NOCs from the relevant departments. To say that so and so department has given an approval for the project is not sufficient, what is important to see are the conditions attached to these approvals,” said Zubair Ahmed Abro, an environmental lawyer.

An important concern which consumed a lot of time was Sepa’s decision to call a hearing on the same project. Most participants were of the view that the same “flawed EIA report” earlier presented at the past hearing was being shared with the audience, which negated the purpose of holding a second hearing.

The question over director general of Sepa’s continued absence from public hearings was also raised. Furthermore, there was strong criticism over the way GEMS’ representatives tried to downplay mangroves’ large-scale destruction by saying that a “minimum number of trees would be cut down.”

These representatives, however, argued that mature trees would be replaced by a ratio of 1:10 and smaller ones with 1:5.

Earlier, two presentations, one on the project’s proposed infrastructure, its benefits and operations by Nasir Gill and the other on its EIA report by Jibran Khalid, were shared with the audience.

The LNG import to Pakistan, it was said, was crucial to meet future energy needs, to sustain and support economic growth. The fuel was safer and provided greater efficiency than other fuels.

It was also pointed out that a number of studies by international firms had already been done to ensure safe operation of the project, which posed no environmental threats if mitigation measures suggested in the EIA report were followed.

When asked whether Sepa had studied those reports and what were its observations, the audience did not receive any reply from its representatives.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2017


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