The Department of Environment is on the way to issue environmental clearance to a dual fuel-based power plant blocking a 493 acre stretch of the Feni River treating it as a project of ‘indispensable national interest.’
On October 29, the department replaced its investigation officer with a new one to revisit the proposed power plant site at Sonagazi where state-owned Electricity Generation Company, Bangladesh plans to acquire 493.85 acre of land to build a 400-500MW power plant.
The previous investigation officer had said in his report that the proposed site was part of the Choto Feni River where no power plant could be allowed.
On the basis of his report the department had vetoed the construction of the power plant for six months until October 29.
Department director general AKM Rafique Ahammed refused to make comments.
‘We requested the Department of Environment to give it a second thought as the country needs more power plants,’ project director of the proposed power plant Mohammad Anwar Hossain told New Age.
‘It is good that the DoE agreed to rethink,’ he said. Bangladesh’s capacity to generate power has long surpassed the demand and the nation pays over Tk 8,000 crore to private power plants annually as their production capacity is higher than the demand.
Anwar, a superintending engineer of the company, said that their proposed site was no longer a river but fallow land.
He said that the revisit would have to put on hold until January as the proposed site would remain under flood waters until then.
The first report clearly mentioned that the proposed site got inundated during high tides every day and its south-eastern part surfaced briefly during the ebb tides.
The department’s Feni office chief Mej-Babul Alam visited the site on May 8, the day before he submitted the report.
The previous report also said that the proposed site was classified as river and it would be illegal to fill river or other water bodies in order to change the land classification of the site.
The report led to arguments between the department and the Power Division and the power generation company for months.
The department exchanged letters with the Power Division and the company saying that there was no legal scope for it to issue environmental clearance to the proposed power plant project.
In letters exchanged over the past six months, the department also said that unless it was of utmost national interest no clearance could be extended for the construction of the power plant at the costs of the environment and ecology.
The department director general, in a letter on July 9, said that the implementation of the project would restrict the flow of the river and seriously impact its ecology.
Still both the Power Division and the company insisted that the department should treat the project as of extreme national interest.
‘They actually pressurised us to extract the environmental clearance,’ said a department officer.
The EGCB managing director Arun Kumar Shaha told New Age in August that no power plant would be built harming the environment.
Power Division deputy secretary Mahfuza Akhter said that the proposed power plant project was treated as of national interest as it was approved by the prime minister.
‘Let’s see what the DoE finds out during its second visit,’ said Mahfuza Akhter.
Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon general secretary Sharif Jamil said that the government was encroaching upon rivers to build power plants.
‘If the government does not give up the project immediately, it would cause environmental disaster,’ said Sharif Jamil.
He said that the Feni River, originating in Bangladesh was in a critical state because of deforestation and illegal water lifting by India.
‘Encroachment is nothing short of a death sentence for Feni River,’ he said.
A 2017 Bangladesh Journal of Zoology study revealed that the Feni River was home to 26 per cent of 253 freshwater fish species of the country.
At least 16 of the fish species found in the Feni River have been categorised as either endangered or threatened or vulnerable by the IUCN.
The government has been under fire for ignoring calls to give up the power plant projects in the Sunderbans and the other ecologically sensitive areas.
At least 120 power plants were established in last 10 years mostly on river banks and along the country’s coastline.
Both the government and private companies are accused of showing the thumb to the law for setting up the power plants, sometimes obstructing river flows by filling up floodplains, severely harming ecology and river-based rural economy.
In July, the National River Conservation Commission reported encroachment of the transborder river Teesta by a private company, Teesta Solar Limited, for building a solar power plant at Sundarganj in Gaibandha.
The report said that the company had already built a 1.7km-long portion of its planned 4.5km-long embankment around a major part of the river without obtaining approval from the authorities concerned.
About 11 acres of Dhaleshwari floodplains at Dhalla, Singair, Manikganj has been filled by Manikganj Power Plant to build its power plant, according to the river commission.