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KARACHI, Sept 10: The government of Sindh has directed an oil exploration company to halt activities in a protected area and obtain the mandatory permissions, Dawn has learnt.

The Sindh Wildlife Department has issued the directive to Petroleum Exploration (Pvt) Ltd which was carrying out exploration activities in the Dolphin Reserve, protected under the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance. When contacted by Dawn, PEPL did not answer the questions put to it and gave instead a general statement.

PEPL has been granted the Kandhara, Badar and Salam blocks in Sukkur, Khairpur, Ghotki and Kashmore districts which include the Dolphin Reserve, home to the endangered blind Indus River Dolphin species.

Any activities in a protected area require the prior submission of an Environmental Impact Assessment report and a no-objection certificate from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). However, sources say that PEPL has not yet been issued the NOC.

The deputy conservator of the Sindh Wildlife Department, Hussain Bakhsh Bhaagat, told Dawn that in June/July, he caught the PEPL team carrying out seismic surveys in the protected area of the Kandhara block and directed the company to immediately halt the illegal activities. Led by Ray Wainwright, the PEPL team then withdrew the seismic lines from the Dolphin Reserve.

However, he said, the company has completed activities in the Kandhara block and has moved on to the Badar and Salam blocks, which also encompass the Dolphin Reserve. “PEPL has again been directed to cease seismic surveys in the area falling into the protected site and get the necessary permission,” he told Dawn.

‘Meet legal conditions’

According to informed sources, SEPA also informed PEPL that its activities in the Kandhara block were in violation of the law and directed the company to fulfil the legal requirements. These include submitting the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports with SEPA.

In his communication with the Sindh Wildlife Department, PEPL’s Brig (retd) Mohammad Saleem reportedly maintained that the company did not know the boundaries of the protected area and asked for the relevant maps to be made available.

Dawn sent PEPL the following questions in writing: “PEPL is / has been carrying out seismic survey and exploration activities in Kandhara, Salam and Badar blocks in the Ghotki, Sukkur and Khairpur districts and other areas of upper Sindh. Kindly tell us if the company (PEPL) has obtained the mandatory permissions / NOCs from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, the Sindh Wildlife Department and other relevant government organisations before it started its seismic survey and other exploration activities in the field. Have these activities been stopped or they are still going on?”

After sitting on the query for two days, the company ignored the specific questions and sent instead the following generalised response: “We assure you that being an environmentally-conscious company, we are carrying out all our activities in accordance with the rules and regulations of the government.”

Meanwhile, the provincial environment minister, Dr Saghir Ahmad, told Dawn that PEPL had submitted the IEE and was allowed to work in non-protected areas. However, the company had not submitted the EIA, so giving it an NOC or the permission to work in a protected area does not arise at this stage. “It must first submit the EIA report, which will be processed and evaluated,” said Dr Ahmad. “Subsequently, a decision will be taken.”

He added that he had directed SEPA officials in Sukkur to provide an updated report on PEPL’s activities. “If the company has committed any illegalities, the IEE-related permission will be reviewed and action will be taken according to the law,” he commented.