THAILAND is pursuing the goal of generating 160 megawatts of electricity from waste. While everyone thinks that it is a good idea, most are appalled by the National Environment Board's (NEB) decision to exempt waste-to-energy facilities with a capacity of
Without the EIA, how can locals obtain information and voice opinions on waste-to-energy plant projects?
What if these plants pollute the environment and threaten public health?
The NEB said that even without the EIA requirement, such plants were still required to honour the Code of Practice, and full compliance with the code would ensure that proper measures were in place to minimise health and environmental impacts.
The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry insisted that the Code of Practice was as good as the EIA. For example, it will bar waste-to-energy plants from going up in protected forestland and wetlands, it argued.
The ministry also disclosed that a checklist of more than 300 items was in place to ensure that a waste-to-energy project was carefully checked before being given a licence.
It is widely believed that the NEB’s latest move is a response to the country’s growing garbage problem. In 2013, the country generated 26.77 million tonnes of waste – up as much as two million tonnes from a year earlier.
On August 26, 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order issued a resolution that recommended the waste-to-energy approach as a way to tackle the garbage problem, and called for the easing of laws and the EIA in a bid to promote the construction of waste-to-energy plants.
Today, the garbage problem is particularly worrying in light of the fact that only 19 per cent of the country’s 2,490 waste-disposal facilities operate in line with the proper standard. The rest dispose of garbage through risky methods – like burning piles of garbage in open fields.
Every now and then the media reports that a fire has broken out at a current or former landfill, spreading harmful smoke in neighbourhoods.
In the eyes of many, the promotion of waste-to-energy facilities may provide the answer to Thailand’s garbage problem.
Sonthi Kochawat, secretary general of the Thai Environmental Health Association, warned that any rush to promote the establishment of waste-to-energy power plants could seriously backfire.
He pointed out that if the plants caused grave pollution, people would put up fiercer opposition against them and make it even harder to deal with the growing amount of garbage.
Sonthi also emphasised that an EIA was a tool to protect people.
Thailand has to learn a lesson from its decision to allow biomass power plants with a capacity of less than 10 megawatts of electricity to spring into operation without an EIA.
In Roi Et, the villagers in several villages have been living amid black smoke emitted by three biomass power plants. None of these plants had to undergo an EIA because their capacity does not exceed 10 megawatts.
“The first plant opened in 2001. Then two more plants started their operation too. By late 2004, black particles swirled around,” said Phuriton Namlak, a resident of Tambon Nuea Muang in Roi Et’s Muang district.
Given that there are risks of pollution and the possible adverse impact on health, why did the NEB remove the EIA process?
It is not a secret that many Thai entrepreneurs are good at exploiting legal loopholes and evading social responsibility.
By exempting waste-to-energy facilities with a capacity of over 10 megawatts from the EIA process, many projects will indeed go up at the expense of the environment and people’s health.
So before Thais are forced to bear the brunt of this or clash with investors, why doesn’t the government review its approach to promote waste-to-energy plants.
Don’t forget that the EIA serves to protect the environment and people’s health.
Don’t forget that the EIA includes public participation and public consultation. Via this process, people get information they need and the opportunity to express their views and concerns.
By the time the EIA concludes, people will have their say to an extent. So, the risk of serious pollution, health impacts and conflict being related to an EIA-endorsed project is significantly reduced. The exclusion of the EIA will force many parties to learn a lesson the hard way.