EARTH Thailand

Rayong locals demand accident warning system

The Nation 14 May 2012 | Pongphon Sarnsamak, Sirinart  

People living near Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong province are demanding that the government create an early warning system for chemical related accidents and are insisting that manufacturers reveal information about all chemical substances they use.

“For the first two hours after the explosion at BST Elastomers factory, nobody told us what we should do,” a 22 year old resident who asked to remain unnamed told The Nation. “They [the local authorities] just drove around, telling us on the megaphone to evacuate, but they didn’t say where they wanted us to go.”

The May 5 incident is the first time she has experienced anything this horrific, she said. Her rented flat in Soi Ruam Pattana, just 2 kilometres from the industrial estate, was covered in black smoke after a toluene tank exploded at the factory at around 3.30pm. She said that she was terrified after hearing what sounded like a bomb explosion and her six month old daughter would not stop crying.

All she could do at the time was call her brother, who lived about 60km away, to pick them up.

“Why did they not tell us about the kind of chemical substances that leaked from the explosion? Why did they not tell us about the dangers and why didn’t they tell us where we should go?” she asked.

SaIng Wongpaisarn, 61, who can barely move due to severe arthritis, said all she could do was pray. There wasn’t anyone at home to help her move. “I just prayed to Buddha and told myself to accept my fate. Nobody came to tell me what to do or where to go,” she said.

Shopkeeper Samonr Sriwichai, 51, agreed, saying they were told to evacuate, but nobody told them where to go. “They just told us to stay far away,” she added.

The blast at the BST Elastomers plant killed 11 people and injured 129 others, and the blaze had 15 communities within the 2km radius of the estate covered in thick smoke.

“Factories inside the estate should inform local residents about the kind of chemicals they are using and the danger that they might face. This would help them learn about how they can protect themselves,” Map Ta Phut Hospital director Dr Surapin Maleehuan said. “However, don’t expect the manufacturers to be too forthcoming with this information.”

Surapin said he had to use his own personal contacts inside the compound to find out what chemical substances were linked to the blast.

Wichan Simachaya, former director general of the Pollution Control Department, is also calling on the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT) as well as all plants at the estate to reveal information about the chemicals being used.

“We found many chemicals that could be harmful to people’s health had been released during the period when plants were shut down for maintenance,” he said. “The IEAT should inform the public about the dangers they might face.”

Industry Minister Pongsvas Svasti said he agreed that information related to the chemicals being used should be revealed to the public, but he added that it might still be difficult for the common man to understand how toxic these substances might be.

“We need to provide the definitions in layman’s terms so people can better understand the risk of chemical accidents,” he said. “We will probably publish guidelines.”

The ministry is investigating the cause of the tragedy and should have the result ready in a few weeks. A preliminary investigation showed that the accident was likely caused by a misunderstanding among subcontracted workers, who did not follow standard operations while doing maintenance work.