The Environment Protection Agency has, on the 7th of August 2020, won a landmark case that was brought before Magistrate Santigie Bangura at the Magistrate Court No. 2 in the Southern city of Bo and represented by the Agency’s Legal and Compliance Team. In total, eleven individuals were arraigned before the Magistrate and all pleaded guilty to the charges under the Environment Protection Agency Act.
The matter concerned illegal operations that have been ongoing within the city of Bo involving the production of local soap called “kabakudu” without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Licence. The Kabakudu Soap is locally produced from sodium hydrochloride which has significant health risks on human beings and the environment. The production of this local soap was being carried out in a manner that was harmful to human health as well as the environment and has been ongoing for several years despite series of attempts by the EPASL to have the manufacturers comply with the EPA Act of 2008. All kabakudu Processing centers were situated within residential areas thereby exposing residents to air pollution due to open burning of palm oil, oil spillage and the release of toxic and hazardous substances.
The workers in these Kabakudu manufacturing centers operate under circumstances that render them so prone to a lot of health hazards like skin cancer, lung diseases, impotency etc. A good number of residents in Bo rely on borehole water courses to carry out their domestic activities. These borehole water courses have been polluted (many now unusable) due to the toxic chemicals used in the production process. Ecologically, the activities of this so-called soap manufacturing industry also posed significant risks to wetlands which are targeted as dump sites thereby putting at risk the ecosystem in that part of the country, leading to biodiversity loss and drastic reduction of essential ecosystem services.
Among other things, the discharge of noxious waste into the environment was a key feature of the operations of the Kabakudu production which, in itself, was a violation under Sec 58(5) of the EPA Act which states that “The discharge of any toxic and hazardous substance into the air or in, or under the land and waters of sierra Leone is prohibited”.
Sec 23(1) of the EPA Act provides that “notwithstanding the provisions of any enactment, no person shall undertake or cause to be undertaken any of the projects set out in the First Schedule unless he holds a valid licence in respect of such project”. The First Schedule to the EPA Act provides a list of activities, including those for which the accused persons were charged, which require a company or person engaged in such acts to acquire an EIA licence as a condition precedent. In other words, the acquisition of an EIA licence must predate the commencement of activities for which the licence is being sought. Sec 24(1) of the Act is very instructive on this and it states that “Any person who wishes to undertake or cause to be undertaken any of the projects set out in the First Schedule shall apply to the Agency for a licence”.
Sec 23(2) of the Act states in no uncertain terms that any person who contravenes Sec 23(1) commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty five million leones in the case of a citizen of Sierra Leone and ten thousand United States dollars in the case of a non-citizen or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years or to both the fine and imprisonment.
The importance of obtaining an EIA licence cannot be underestimated. The EIA itself is a useful tool that is used in the assessment and regulation of activities impacting on the environment. It guides the Agency in determining which activities merit a licence and which do not; all being done in the interest of protecting the environment.
Mindful of the provisions of the EPA Act and cognizant of the health and environmental hazards that were occasioned by this Kabakudu production industry in Bo city, and having tried without success to ban the activity by way of enforcement notices and other lawful means, the Executive Chairman of the Agency, Dr. Bondi Gevao, was left with no option but to cause an action to be instituted in court against these defaulters.
All eleven accused were sentenced to fines ranging from one million five hundred thousand leones to two million leones to be paid on or before the 2nd of September 2020, failing which they must serve a prison term of eighteen months each.
The court further ordered that that the accused persons relocate their operations to a location outside the municipality of Bo; stop all operations involving the production of Kabakudu until the business owners of this illegal activity have secured an Environmental Impact Assessment License. The convicts were also ordered to clean up the waste that had been generated by their operations on or before the 15th September 2020 and that such a clean-up exercise is to be supervised by the Environment Protection Agency and the Sierra Leone Police.
Prior to the commencement of these proceedings, the eleven accused persons had been arrested for violating a communiqué that was jointly issued by relevant authorities including the Paramount chief of Kakua Chiefdom, the Bo City Council, the Bo District Medical Officer, and the Environment Protection Agency at a strategic environmental disaster meeting summoned by the Bo City Council on the 17th July 2020. This was after a letter was written by both the Ministry of Environment and the Executive Chairman of the Environment Protection Agency to the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development seeking his intervention to help address serious environmental hazards in the municipality of Bo.
The letter by the Minister of Environment and the EPA Executive Chairman resulted in a provincial security meeting that was convened in Bo and attended by the Honorable Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Ambassador Tamba Lamina, the Executive Chairman EPA, Dr. Bondi Gevao, Bo City Council, Bo District Council, the Office of National Security, the Military, Sierra Leone Police and representatives from Civil Society organizations on the 23rd July 2020. It was resolved in this meeting that the production of Kabakudu soap within the Bo Municipality must stop with immediate effect and that the Sierra Leone Police was to enforce such a decision.
All of these engagements were done to secure a credible solution out of this impasse. The failure on the part of the kabakudu producers to abide by the contents and spirit of the joint communiqué was the last straw that brought about the above mentioned court action.
This ruling sends a very powerful message that those who would engage in an illegal enterprise to deplete our environment do so at their own peril and that the EPASL as a regulatory body will stop at nothing to bring to book those who choose such a path.