National Environmental Act is to be amended after two decades

Aruna Lakshman Fernando

More than seventy different laws that have an impact on the well-being and safety of the natural environment and human health, directly and indirectly, are operational in Sri Lanka. 

While the majority of them address issues in specific sectors, the legal framework related to overall environmental pollution and environmental protection centres on the National Environmental Act. In 1980, this act was introduced by the National Environmental Authority (NEA) to control the damage caused to the environment. The NEA has now proposed 42 new sections to give more teeth to the Act, which has not been updated for almost two decades.

The NEA recently introduced two major regulatory provisions to assess, mitigate and control the impact of development activities on the environment. They are,

01.    EIA – Environmental Impact Assessment

02.    EPL – Environmental Protection Licence

Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told a newspaper that it was important to include new provisions in the existing legal framework in keeping with ground reality. He said he believed that by bringing amendments to the Act and expanding the scope of the current legal framework, solutions to the existing environmental issues could be found. 

Environment Ministry Secretary Dr. Anil Jasinghe told the newspaper that the 42 proposed provisions would bring core changes to the Act.

He said he believed the minimum fine, which currently stands as low as Rs. 10,000 for offences, should be raised. He said that with the fines not being so heavy, there was a high tendency for the offenders to pay the fines and commit the same offences again and again.

Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) is identified as an important new provision that requires special attention. Strategic assessment has been recognized as an effective tool in development planning to integrate environmental considerations and consider a variety of environmental factors when permitting new development plans. In addition, the Environmental Protection Licence is a key regulatory tool to prevent the release of effluents and emissions into the environment. An effective legal device, it also encourages the reduction of environmental pollution.

To minimise the release of industrial waste into the environment, the Environment Ministry has planned to implement the Polluter Pays Principle. According to Dr. Jasinghe, the payment should be proportionate to the severity of the damage to the environment. The new provisions also propose to introduce a penalty for delays in renewing the environmental protection permit. The proposals have already been forwarded to the Legal Draftsman’s Department. Dr. Jasinghe said he hoped to make them effective soon.

Pointing out that the definition of wetlands had not been interpreted by the existing Act, Dr. Jasinghe said the issue had been addressed by the proposed amendments.

Although new provisions have been proposed, many existing environmental issues have been overlooked, even in this amendment. According to Nayanaka Ranwella, an environmental activist, although the proposed amendments can curb the existing environmental problems and threats, the authorities should aim for long-term solutions. He said more attention should be paid to the accountability of the institutions that come under the scope of the Ministry of Environment.

Endorsing Mr. Ranwella’s views, environmental lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardene said it was essential to have a balance of power between institutions to reduce environmental problems. He also emphasised that the National Environmental Act should be amended with new provisions to make it more effective.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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