Ban Nong Haen villagers start a new fight against toxic waste with CHIA
“Not a single drop of wastewater will hit the ground” is the sentence that Manas Sawasdee, who is among villagers in Nong Haen sub-district affected by toxic waste, recalled clearly from the day when KSD Recycle Co told local residents in a meeting, asking them for permission to treat the waste that it would take from other places in the locality.
Actually things do not turn out as claimed. A few years after the company started to bring in toxic waste, villagers became victims of hazardous substances. Their farmland has been damaged and plants have not grown fully. Many pig farms had to be shut down because pigs were ill and infertile and piglets were born with defects and died. Water for consumption has been contaminated. Villagers have fallen ill and died. Someone was charged with possessing hazardous substances because toxic waste was secretly dumped on his land. The worse consequence is that community leaders were shot dead for their past fight to protect villagers and seek justice for their native land.
Apart from KSD Recycle, Fusion Co Ltd and Thai Disposal Center have also dumped toxic waste and cashed in on people’s hardships in Nong Haen sub-district of Phanom Sarakham district in Chachoengsao province. “At first, we did not think there would be a negative impact. At that time we thought we would have more income opportunities but actually there have been unexpected outcomes. They have brought about problems for us to solve. They have given us a hard lesson,” said Jon Naowa-opas, president of the Nong Haen sub-district administrative organization, recalling the beginning of the trouble.
In the past, people in Nong Haen sub-district grew rice, vegetables, fruit plants, rubber trees and pigs to make their livings. In 1995, some villagers started to sell soil in their unused land for land improvement at the construction site of a Bangkok airport. Then the locality was full with pits and that was the beginning of the toxic waste saga.
As unused pits blanketed the sub-district, landfill operators and waste disposers started to buy them and dump industrial waste without authorization in 1997. Four years later or in 2001 the dumping started to cause dust and stenches. In 2005 villagers began to file complaints against the operations of Fusion Co with Abhisit Vejjajiva, the then prime minister.
In 2007 the three companies officially started their operations with License No. 105 for waste sorting and landfill and License No. 106 for industrial waste recycling (writer) issued by the Department of Industrial Works. Thai Disposal Center buries waste from Double A Paper Co and gypsum production. KSD Recycle sorts waste, treats wastewater from factories and buries non-toxic and toxic waste. Fusion Co recycles waste and oil. There are as many as nine locations of factories, industrial waste dumps and (toxic) wastewater ponds in Nong Haen sub-district.
“Before 2007, approximately in 2004 and 2005, waste was illegally dumped. The burial of non-toxic waste did not comply with regulations. There were stenches. Licenses were obtained in 2007 and 2008 but there was not a treatment system. Equipment was substandard. Basically waste was taken here but was not treated. It was simply dumped. Oil was discharged into a river. Farmers were affected, so villagers discussed the issue and filed complaints,” Mr Jon said.
He continued that “an official of the Department of Industrial Works, from the Water Technology and Industrial Pollution Management Bureau, used his direct authority to seek approval for a plant of his own interest that is Fusion Co. It is a company that recycles oil. We checked his area and found it was contaminated with toxic substances. The examination resulted in me and four other villagers facing a defamation lawsuit. In this matter, we have been infringed but were sued. Fortunately the suit was dismissed. I want to point out that the abuse of authority affects villagers.”
Fusion Co dumps toxic waste without caring for communities and the environment. Its plant stands only 10 meters from an irrigation canal. Its wastewater is discharged into the canal which is contaminated with hazardous phenol and cadmium. “Fusion is in the area of Moo 14 village. The company is operating. Its income in 2003 and 2004 was only in five figures but the income in 2013 was in eight figures.
The fight of villagers caused the plant to be temporarily closed. The Pollution Control Department formed a probe committee and Mr Jon was also in the panel. The committee conducted two rounds of tests which showed that the plant did not have any impact. Villagers noted that the tests led to such results because they happened on the holidays of the plant. Consequently villagers did not accept the results of the tests. Mr Jon and villagers withdrew from the committee. Afterwards Mr Jon and four other activists faced death threats. One of them, village headman Prajob Naowa-opas who is Mr Jon’s younger brother, was shot dead in 2010. Fusion Co was charged with masterminding the murder. Although there is the lawsuit and the latest test by villagers in 2012 found phenol and cadmium, the plant operates as usual.
For KSD Recycle Co, although with a license, it lacks treatment equipment. “We checked its machines but they were not in a workable condition. They were covered with webs. At one location, wastewater was discharged into a pond covering 15 rai (24,000 square meters) in the area of Moo 8 village. The area is contaminated with toxic substances. Water hyacinths were burnt. Villagers dare not use water. Besides, an industrial waste dump of the company stands upstream. Consequently waste flows into the Huay Tak Noi stream and then an irrigation canal that reaches houses and pig farms. Dozens of the farms were shut down. The local administrative organization tried to treat it but the capacity is insufficient. We asked academics to check it. The Department of Industrial Works and the Pollution Control Department checked and approved it but that could not convince our academics,” Mr Manas said.
In 2010 villagers started to have breathing difficulties. There were stenches. Orchard owners who live near the wastewater pond fell ill. A person died. In 2013, 5-6 truckloads of waste were dumped. Today villagers must sleep there to stop the dumping.
Mr Manas dug a pond to support farming in his own land but waste was secretly dumped there. He then filed a complaint. “The complaint resulted in me being accused by the officials who conducted a check of being involved in the dumping and I was charged with possessing hazardous substances. I was liable to a fine of up to 200,000 baht and a jail term of up to four years. The National Human Rights Commission helped me and I was freed from the lawsuit in 2013.”
Initially villagers filed their complaints with any organization that they considered as relevant but their problem was not solved. “In 2012, we caught a wastewater-carrying truck of KSD Co and filed a complaint that made the headlines. Then all parties arrived to solve the problem. They are all concerned organizations in the government sector and the civil sector. Concerned academic organizations that were aware of the reports came to help us. The DSI (Department of Special Investigation) drew a map showing there are 11 locations. We boarded a Sky Report helicopter of Channel 3 together with DSI officials and saw the picture of the dumping. The complaint filed with the Prime Minister’s Office led to the formation of a working group.”
Besides, from Aug 30 to Sept 15, 2012, the Department of Groundwater Resources came to the rescue. It collected samples of water and drew a map showing areas of water with toxic contamination. Red areas are the places where water cannot be consumed. Orange areas are for consumable water which is still hazardous and in areas underground water is standard and consumable. “If I am asked which organization has helped us the most, I will say the Department of Groundwater Resources because it relieves our hardships with water for consumption by drilling clean wells for us,” Mr Jon commented.
At that time, community driven health impact assessment (CHIA) was introduced as a solution. The National Health Commission Office presented it to villagers so that they can use it as a tool to support their complaints.
CHIA means the health impact assessment in which dwellers gather data about their own community. The data shows the potential of their area and their lifestyles and inform the people of the factors that have impacts on their well-being. This kind of assessment tells people if or how a project will affect their well-being. The collection of such information will enable dwellers to set guidelines for the development of their own community (http://ilaw.or.th).
“Basically CHIA is a tool for relevant academics to develop information systems and knowledge. It gives us the picture of problems and solutions. Villagers can build on the information. The tool solves problems in our Nong Haen sub-district very well. Information can be cited in courts to seek justice,” Mr Jon spoke of CHIA in the sub-district.
Academics have been involved in mechanisms to cope with toxic waste. They are engineering academics from Naresuan University and water and air experts from the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion. Besides, independent academics exchange information within a network and support the work. These academics gather information from all concerned organizations. They study past actions of particular organisations including the Department of Industrial Works, environmental authorities and the Pollution Control Department and compile the problems of villagers. The findings are basic information. Scientific researches through the examination of samples of water and soil among others will add information. Then solutions and rehabilitation will be planned and tested before real application in the locality. In the meantime, community dwellers are educated. Maps of communities were drawn to clearly show problematic areas and communicate with the larger society. Discussions have been organized to spread knowledge and communicate information to all parties, especially local people.
A map of Nong Haen sub-district of Phanom Sarakham district in Chachoengsao province.
The black circle means landfill/wastewater pond, waste pit. The red circle means
There is a process to return all information obtained from the researches to community dwellers for their own benefits. Local people can communicate it with the general public and concerned organizations systematically and back it with clear knowledge. They can also use the information to plan systematic rehabilitation and convince courts of problems and impacts for the benefits of their legal cases.
Communications within Nong Haen sub-district have driven local residents to join forces in the fight. They also receive support from outside parties namely provincial health authorities, the local administrative organization of Nong Haen sub-district, the provincial governor, the Pollution Control Department, provincial and regional environmental authorities, the Department of Groundwater Resources, the Department of Industrial Works, the Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion, industrial authorities of Chachoengsao province, the Nong Haen police station, the National Health Commission Office, the ENLAWTHAI Foundation, the Civil Society Planning Network and Thammasat University.
There was the good news recently that after experimentation, academics of Naresuan University implemented a rehabilitation project and completely developed a rehabilitation system which only has yet to be installed. Tests have shown that general contamination starts to drop. For the sake of justice, the ENLAWTHAI Foundation has helped by suing KSD Co and RJ Co that sent waste to KSD and demanding 48 million baht in compensation for 112 affected villagers. It will also take a legal action against the Department of Industrial Works for issuing the above-mentioned licenses. The department will be informed of the action 90 days in advance. After such environmental cases, there will be civil and criminal cases.
The fight is going on as problems have not been solved. Although many parties have actively supported local residents in the fight, situations in the locality remain critical. The three companies continue to operate as usual. The villagers who are key opponents receive endless death threats but they are never discouraged. There will be a royally sponsored cremation for Mr Prajob Naowa-opas. On the occasion, a community rights sub-committee of the National Human Rights Commission and partners will organize a discussion on his death and solutions to dumping in Thailand. The organizers are welcoming persons interested in the information, exchange of experiences and participation in the fight.