Map Ta Phut locals demand say in industrial safeguards
Bangkok Post 20 May 2012 | Tunya Sukpanich
The utter lack of warning and evacuation measures during the recent twin disasters at the industrial estate has galvanised nearby communities to insist on the right to have a greater say in how they are protected
Two weeks after two horrific chemical accidents at Map Ta Phut industrial estate left 12 people dead and hundreds injured, many who reside near the estate are still living in fear. They are demanding to know why there were no effective safeguards in place to protect them despite many chemical accidents occurring in the area over the past few years.
On May 5, a tank holding the highly flammable chemical toulene exploded at a factory run by Bangkok Synthetics Co (BST), killing 12 people and injuring 129. The following day, gas, thought to be a mix of hydrochloric acid and hypochlorite compound, leaked from a factory belonging to Aditya Birla Chemicals (Thailand), only about five kilometres from the site of the fire. A total of 138 people were hospitalised.
Phusit Pokalakorn, director of Map Chalood School in Map Chalood community near Map Ta Phut, said BST sent a warning to residents in the area about 40 minutes after the explosion and fire.
"During an earlier safety drill, it took about 30 minutes for us to learn of any possible incidents, which we thought was too long because toxic gas would reach the school within a few minutes," said Mr Phusit.
He added that complicating matters is the fact that factory owners determine whether nearby communities should be evacuated.
"The factory decides whether to evacuate people living near the industrial estate. If the accident had taken place on a school day, there would be chaos since the school is responsible for 500 students from four to 11 years old."
Phra Sommai, the abbot of Wat Nong Fab agreed it would take only a few minutes for toxic gas to reach the communities located around the Map Ta Phut complex. "As for the leak of a toxic substance from Aditya Birla Chemicals on May 6, the company's management only knew of the incident after about 60 locals were taken to hospital," said the abbot.
"In the case of the BST accident, it took 40 minutes before we received word of the fire, but there were no details of where it happened, what kind of toxic chemicals were involved, or whether we should be evacuated," Phra Sommai said.
Instead of fleeing to safety on May 5, many locals gathered in front of the industrial estate to pick up family members working there because they had no faith in the estate's safety measures.
Patcharee Ditkhen, from Ban Sak Look Chang community about four kilometres from BST, said locals there had not participated in any of the emergency drills arranged by local authorities and the factories. "We made requests to join, but the factories decide which communities participate in the exercises," she said.
SAFETY DESIGN IN PROGRESS
Last Tuesday, the National Health Commission Office of Thailand organised a meeting with locals who wanted to become involved in designing their own safety plans. They also wanted to be in charge of mapping an emergency evacuation plan for their communities. The plan must be able to accommodate children as well as the old and the disabled, say community leaders. More than one plan may be devised and evaluated by community members. Most importantly, local leaders must make sure that everyone in their communities knows and understands evacuation plans and participates in practice drills. Locals say it makes sense for them to take the lead because they are well aware of the risks posed by industrial accidents _ sometimes through bitter experience _ and they also know the area best.
Suppakit Nantavorakarn works closely with communities near Map Ta Phut on safety issues in his role as a researcher for the Foundation of Healthy Public Policy and a committee member of the Independent Commission on Environment and Health.
At the meeting he said that once an incident occurs, factory managers may underestimate the problem and the impact to the communities and try to handle the situation by themselves, rather than seek help from state and civil agencies.
Mr Suppakit said that while factories have legal liability for accidents, it is locals who usually bear the brunt of the effects of major incidents. ''Local authorities and the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand should set up a centre to help evaluate the scale of all incidents and their impact on communities, and make the decision on whether to evacuate people,'' said Mr Suppakit. He said authorities and locals must no longer allow factory heads to make such decisions unilaterally.
Renu Vejaratpimol, an associate professor and scientist at Silpakorn University, said that factories must immediately report every incident _ minor or serious. She said that Aditya Birla Chemicals did not issue a timely warning, and this resulted in more than 100 people being hospitalised. She pointed out that in 2010 there was a gas leak at an Aditya Birla factory that resulted in its operations being suspended.
Heavy rain around the time of the May 5 explosion and subsequent fires rendered normal communication methods such as mobile phone and community radio stations ineffective in warning people of the danger.
It has been suggested that flags be used both as an alternative warning method and to indicate wind direction.
''At present, factories are holding a lot of fire drills inside their compounds, but these do not usually involve much interaction with communities,'' said Mr Suppakit.
He suggested that communities ask for assistance from authorities and factories in conducting evacuation drills under different scenarios, including heavy rain.
Another proposal which needs local approval and participation is a buffer zone between the industries and the communities.
''In the Map Ta Phut industrial complex, factories are too close to communities. A buffer zone must be established to ensure safety for both sides. The locals should help in the allocation of suitable plots of land for a buffer zone,'' Mr Suppakit said.
Poranee Swadirak, from the City Planning for Society Nework, said that normally it is considered satisfactory for industrial operations to be located 50m-100m from a community. However, chemical industries such as those in Map Ta Phut need a buffer zone of at least two kilometres.
''In fact, the recent accidents affected communities three or four kilometres away,'' Ms Poranee said.
However, there is not much vacant land in the area, so any available plots should be reserved as a ''green'' buffer green zone in the Map Ta Phut city plan as soon as possible, she said.
Now that the immediate danger from the May 5 blast is over, many locals are wondering about possible long-term health risks from inhaling toluene released in the accident, or from residual amounts of the chemical in the air. Some Thai government officials have claimed there is no health or environmental risk related to the release of the hydrocarbon into the atmosphere in the May 5 accident, while some academics disgree. It is well known that exposure to high levels of toluene may affect kidneys, the nervous system, liver, brain and heart, and can cause unconciousness and even death.
Breathing toluene over long periods of time can cause permanent brain damage, or depression, and may be particularly risky for pregnant women.
According to Walaiporn Mooksuwan, a chemical management expert and deputy director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand, toluene normally breaks down easily.
However, in the sunshine and with a high ozone concentration, the chemical can remain longer in the atmosphere. Records from the Pollution Control Department show that the area around Map Ta Phut generally has high ozone levels. Without continual monitoring of toluene levels it is difficult to assess the risk to locals in the area.
Unless adequate safety measures are in place, those most at risk from exposure to toluene and other chemicals at Map Ta Phut are workers in the factories. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are usually less willing to talk about safety measures at the industrial estate than local residents are, but some told Spectrum off the record that they are concerned about the long-term health effects of their work environment. Some workers in a factory close to BST also said they were ordered to continue working after the fire was brought under control.
PROPOSED PLANS TO KEEP LOCALS SAFE
Somporn Penkham, director of the Health Impact Assessment Section of the National Health Commission Office of Thailand, told Spectrum that the organisation has proposed the following safety measures to avoid or deal with future industrial accidents involving chemicals in Thailand:
1. All chemicals used in each industry must be publicly disclosed so that the surrounding communities can use the data to determine health risks.
2. Each community must design and develop a detailed plan to deal with these risks itself.
3. When an incident occurs, the factory must report it to an independent crisis management team authorised to enter the factory compound. The team must include chemical experts.
4. The independent investigation team will investigate what happened and how, and make a judgement on who should be held responsible. (At present, the factory hires a team to investigate.)
5. A population monitoring plan should be set up by national and local health agencies to register people affected by an accident and follow up on their medical treatment. The team will also identify, screen, measure and monitor the population's exposure and contamination to chemical materials. The data and information will benefit both the affected people and systems for long-term monitoring and medical treatment.