EARTH Thailand

Fate of 181 big projects in balance

Bangkok Post 03 November 2009  

Activists ready to fight investors on pollution

More than 180 major investment projects are hanging in the balance after activists vowed to seek a special court order to halt them under a constitutional article covering health and environmental impacts.

Article 67 of the constitution is the same article used to halt 76 industrial projects in Rayong province.

Among the 181 projects targeted by the activists are the expansion of Sahaviriya's hot-rolled steel plant, the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand's Blue rail line linking Bang Sue and Phahon Yothin, and the upstream petroleum production and exploration projects by Chevron Offshore (Thailand), the Anti Global Warming Association said in a statement.

The association plans to petition the Administrative Court to stop the projects as no studies or hearings have been held on their possible impact.

Local communities alerted the activists after suspicions were raised the projects violated Article 67. The group is seeking the aid of the Lawyers Council in filing briefs against the projects, association leader Srisuwan Chanya said.

Other projects include a Thai Asahi Glass Plc factory and the Airport of Thailand's Samui airport.

Article 67 stipulates developers of projects seen as having the potential to cause serious health and environmental problems must conduct impact studies, hold public hearings and seek recommendations from independent environmental organisations.

Since the 2007 charter came into effect, more than 620 projects have been approved by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning even though an independent assessment agency has yet to be established to give opinions on the projects, Mr Srisuwan said.

Of these, 181 were felt to be sufficiently worrying about the impact they would have on local communities. Allowing the projects to go ahead was a breach of the constitution, he said.

"Communities affected by these investments want the project developers to conduct environmental and health impact studies, and hold public hearings as required by law," he said.

No date has been set for filing the lawsuit, but if the court eventually accepts the case, the 181 projects could meet the same fate as the suspended 76 industrial projects in Rayong.

Mr Srisuwan and 42 Rayong villagers in June lodged an administrative complaint against state agencies accusing them of malpractice for bypassing Article 67 in approving the 76 projects.

The Administrative Court on Sept 29 ordered the projects to be suspended until a hearing was held, causing a flurry of appeals from state agencies and the industrialists.

The Supreme Administrative Court yesterday began hearing the appeals before a phalanx of senior industry and environmental officials and legal teams, while company executives milled around waiting to testify.

A group of villagers affected by pollution also appeared in court. They presented medical records giving evidence of ailments they claimed were caused by pollution and poor environmental conditions to back their call for the suspension of the 76 projects.

Sorayuth Petchtrakul, an assistant to the industry minister, said state agencies asked the court to repeal the injunction because they had already strictly enforced environmental and health regulations.

The court did not set a date for a ruling, but agreed with a request by the state agencies and the operators of the 76 projects to extend the period for submission of additional information to Nov 12.

"A ruling on the appeal should be made as soon as possible, hopefully by the middle of this month," said Payungsak Chartsutthipol, a vice-chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries.

"We hope to see both the appeal and the original case resolved as soon as possible to minimise the impact on investor sentiment. The longer it persists, the more damage it does to the business sector."

Mr Payungsak said the legal framework of Article 67 and environmental guidelines remained unclear. The threat of another 181 projects being delayed only added to the pressure on the government and stakeholders to find a solution as soon as possible, he said.

The Joint Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking, which includes the FTI, yesterday recommended agencies involved appoint a mediator between the private sector and the government on future disputes to avoid legal quagmires.

"Seeking a court resolution to a dispute is costly and can be lengthy. Without a mediator to cut costs and time, foreign investors find the business environment rather difficult," said JCCIB chairman Dusit Nonthanakorn.

Siam Cement Group president and chief executive officer Kan Trakulhoon said the company backed the proposal of the Eastern People's Network to set up a joint state-private-people-academic committee to solve the impasse on the Map Ta Phut problem.

Around 20 SCG projects have been suspended under the court's injunction.

Mr Kan said the committee should oversee environmental protection measures for industrial projects to ensure the operators strictly follow the law.

Projects that meet all legal requirements should be allowed to go ahead, he said.

Department of Special Investigation director-general Tharit Pengdit, said the agency would propose the Special Case Commission launch an investigation into Map Ta Phut's pollution problems next week.