EARTH Thailand

Tackling a toxic waste crisis

Bangkok Post 07 July 2024


When the cadmium waste scare erupted in early April, the government attempted to allay public fears by returning the waste from Samut Sakhon to its original landfill in Tak province. However, recent soil inspections in Samut Sakhon show the impact of the pollution caused by the toxic waste might be more serious. Just moving the toxic waste out of the area is not enough, and more must be done to mitigate the pollution risks.

The removal of carcinogenic cadmium sludge concluded in late June, but subsequent soil inspections detected heavy cadmium contamination in and around related foundries, surpassing the 810 mg/kg contamination limit, with alarming levels ranging from 10,571 mg/kg to 12,084 mg/kg.

In response, Samut Sakhon governor Phol Damtham extended the closure of four illegal cadmium tailing foundries for another 30 days and declared them as disaster zones off-limits to all activities.

While this was a step in the right direction, significant questions remain: How can we clean up these areas to ensure public safety and provide healthcare services to affected communities?

These challenges extend beyond Samut Sakhon. Hazardous cadmium tailings have been discovered in other provinces, including Bangkok. What measures have been taken to assess the health of residents in these areas and provide them with adequate healthcare?

So far, government agencies -- the Department of Factories as well as the Pollution Control Department -- have been quiet after attention from the public and media fizzled out. The government now seems to focus on solely moving the toxic waste back to Tak as soon as possible.

The cadmium scare in Samut Sakhon is just the tip of iceberg of much larger toxic waste problems in Thailand. Due to lax regulations and insufficient on-site inspections, illegal waste treatment facilities have proliferated nationwide. Many operate illicitly, leaving hazardous waste unattended -- a ticking time bomb.

This was illustrated by the chemical fires in Ayutthaya and Rayong provinces in April and May. These incidents, which occurred amid heightened scrutiny following the Samut Sakhon cadmium scandal, raise suspicions of deliberate actions to destroy evidence and evade punishment.

Chemical fires pose serious health risks to nearby communities, compounded by polluted water resulting from firefighting efforts. Despite official reassurances, little has been done to assess the health impacts on residents long exposed to hazardous waste.

The proliferation of illegal toxic waste warehouses, foundries and dumping sites underscores the failure of state mechanisms for industrial waste treatment.

According to Ecological Alert and Recovery -- Thailand (EARTH), a civic group combating toxic waste, local communities have filed nearly 300 complaints about illegal toxic waste dumping sites in the past five years. The top five provinces with the highest number of incidents are Rayong, Chon Buri, Prachin Buri, Samut Sakhon and Nakhon Ratchasima. Most cases involve licensed industrial waste recycling plants within networks that illegally dump waste both on-site and off-site.

The crux of the issue lies in ineffective laws to punish offenders. There are plenty of laws to hold polluters and irresponsible businesses accountable. The problem is that they are not enforced by our officials.

According to the Department of Industrial Works, Thailand generated 2.72 million tonnes of hazardous waste in 2022. Of this, 1.2 million tonnes were stored at waste facilities, and 1.48 million tonnes were transported to waste processing factories.

However, records show that only about 300,000 tonnes per year were properly treated. Due to inadequate on-site inspections to ensure compliance with licences, waste can easily be dumped elsewhere.

While the government must enhance healthcare remedies for those affected by hazardous waste, addressing the issue at its source is crucial.

Innocent people have suffered needlessly from illnesses and deaths due to industrial waste poisoning their land and water. Polluters must face decisive punishment, and waste generators cannot evade responsibility. They must be held accountable for neglecting the oversight of their waste treatment facilities.

Strict on-site inspections of waste treatment facilities must become standard practice, and officials failing in their duties must face consequences.

But that is not enough. The government, especially public health officials, must be more vigilant in monitoring the health of affected villagers. Monitoring must be long term and consistent.

The Pollution Control Department must provide long-term checking on polluted areas. Just moving waste out of polluted areas is far from enough.