Bangladesh: Committee Raises Alarm Over Toxic Pollution From New Tanneries' Hub

The tanneries have been dumping large amounts of chromium , a heavy metal used in the production of rawhide, into the Dhaleshwari River, according to a parliamentary investigation.
Bangladesh:  Committee Raises Alarm Over Toxic Pollution From New Tanneries' Hub Bangladeshi workers unload tannery waste at the Tannery Industrial Area on the banks of the Dhaleshwari River in Savar, Bangladesh, June 28, 2018.

A parliamentary committee is urging Bangladesh’s government to shut down tanneries that are dumping waste into a river in the Dhaka suburb of Savar because a Chinese-built waste treatment plant is not operating properly, officials said.

The tanneries have been dumping large amounts of chromium – a heavy metal used in the production of rawhide – into the Dhaleshwari River, according to an investigation by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

“At least 15,000 cubic meters of untreated waste-water goes into the Dhaleshwari River each day,” Saber Hossain Chowdhury, the committee’s chairman, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“The chromium goes straight into the Dhaleshwari River, putting the environment and the people in great danger,” he said. “So we have asked the Department of Environment to close the estate immediately.”

The findings were revealed during a meeting of the committee last week, at which it recommended that the government order the tanneries closed until the problem was fixed.

Kazi Sakhawat Hossain, an additional secretary at the Ministry of Industries, acknowledged that toxic waste from the tanneries was being dumped into the Dhaleshwari.

“The Chinese company has not made the arrangement to separate chromium from tannery waste. They have handed over the incomplete CETP and left the country. So chromium is going into the Dhaleshwari River,” he said, referring to the Central Effluent Treatment Plant by its acronym.

“Leather and the leather goods sector is one of the big export items. If we close it down, what would happen to the huge volume of raw-hide generated every day? This sector employs hundreds of thousands of people. So I think it is not possible to close down the tannery estate,” Hossain told BenarNews.

The government had allocated 10.1 billion-taka (U.S. $119 million) to build the estate and treatment plant, to lure tanneries away from another location in the Dhaka area where rampant dumping of toxic effluent from the lucrative industry had killed another river.

The tanneries resisted but were forced to move to the new site after a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court. Scores of tanneries now operate there.

“We built an estate to save the Buriganga River. Now this industry pollutes the Dhaleshwari. What do we get from the estate?” Chowdhury said.

‘They did it to save money’

Jiangsu Lingzhi Environmental Protection Co. Ltd is the Chinese firm that Bangladesh had contracted to build the effluent plant at the Savar Tannery Industrial Estate, allocating 4.9 billion taka (nearly U.S. $58 million) of the total project cost for that purpose.

But the Chinese company, which managed the plant until June 2021, only built it partially and not according to the government’s specifications, Bangladeshi officials said.

“The CETP at the leather estate … can at best purify 25,000 cubic meters of liquid waste per day. But the estate generates at least 40,000 cubic meters every day,” Chowdhury said.

The government took over the plant in early July after officials terminated the contract with Jiangsu Linghzhi because of the incomplete work, according to a July 24 report in the Daily Star newspaper.

“They did not operate the CETP sincerely. In many cases, they did not use required quantities of chemicals to treat the pollutants. They did it to save money. So chromium and other pollutants ultimately fell into the river,” J.N. Paul, director of the Savar tanneries estate, told BenarNews.

“After the exit of the Chinese company, we have been trying to separate and recover chromium … Hopefully we will find a solution to separate and recover chromium,” he said.

Officials declined to release a copy of the contract, and representatives of Jiangsu Lingzhi did not immediately respond to efforts by BenarNews to contact the company for comment.   

A Bangladeshi laborer processes leather at a factory on the banks of the Dhaleshwari River in Savar, Bangladesh, June 28, 2018. [AP]

Cash cow

The Department of Environment acknowledged the problem but said the government did not want to close the tanneries estate for fear of crippling the $1.5-billion leather industry.

“We support the standing committee’s decision in this regard,” said Ziaul Haque, a director of the Department of Environment, which has withheld an environmental permit for the tannery estate because of the pollution.

The environment department has relayed these concerns to the Ministry of Industries, which oversees the estate, but “they told us they do not want the estate to be closed,” Haque said.

The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers’ Association, which was active in litigation against tanneries over the pollution of the Buriganga River, praised the parliamentary committee’s call for the government to shut down the new tannery estate.

“The recommendation is a very courageous step. We welcome it. The tannery estate … must be shut now to stop the pollution of the Dhaleshwari river,” Syeda Rizwana Hasan, BELA’s chief executive, told BenarNews.

The tannery industry, she said, had killed the Buriganga.

“The government must not allow the killing of several rivers, the environment and people’s lives for securing the interests of a handful of tannery owners,” Hasan said.

The office of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, has yet to respond publicly to or act over the parliamentary committee’s recommendation.  

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.


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