Landmark Supreme Court decision will change environmental litigation

In a landmark decision that will upend environmental pollution cases in Sri Lanka the Supreme Court today ordered the owners of the Chunnakam Power plant to pay compensation to local residents whose wells were polluted by the facility.

The Supreme Court ordered the Northern Power Company which runs the plant to pay a total of Rs. 20 million to the affected residents. Each affected household will get around Rs 40,000, the court estimated.

This is the highest amount of compensation awarded in Public Interest Litigation in Sri Lankan history.

The Supreme Court three-judge-bench comprising Justice Prasanna Jayawardena, Justice Priyantha Jayawardena and Justice L.T.B. Dehideniya delivered the judgement.  

Attorney Nuwan Bopage, one of the two lawyers who appeared pro bono in the case  pointed out to RepublicNext that the three judges referred to a precedent in India where a similar case had been decided where the courts had placed the onus on the alleged polluter to prove that there was no pollution. “Onus was not placed on the victims,” he said.

Because of that Bopage predicts “there will be a number of cases that will come up. This is a turning point in Public Interest Litigation in this country.”

The petition was filed by environmental activist Ravindra Kariyawasam in 2015 after his organisation found that many wells in the area surrounding the power plant were contaminated.

They found the water had oil, grease and BTEX a cocktail of chemicals such as benzene in it. The court ordered that a panel be set up to find out which of the wells were most polluted and the compensation awarded according to the level of contaminants.

The judges said five hundred families should receive compensation and the money should be handed over to the head of the household.

Kariyawasam told RepublicNext that environmental activism would get a boost with this judgment and thanked his lawyers Bopage and Charith Wettasinghe for their interest and work.

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“Environmental degradation is a political issue in this country and must be treated as such,” he added.

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