By Suphasuk Pradubsuk (Posted: March 11, 2009)
On March 4, 2009, the Chiang Mai Administrative Court ordered the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to pay compensation to villagers affected by the pollution caused by its Mae Moh power plant in Lampang province. Mae Moh, Thailand’s largest lignite-filed power plant, began operating on a small scale in the 1960s and was significantly expanded in the 1980s. Sulphur dioxide emissions from the power plant have had a severe impact on the heath of people, damage to crops and useable land in the 16 villages. Based on the Pollution Control Department’s air-quality reports from November 1992 to August 1998, the level of ambient sulphur dioxide in the Mea Moh area was beyond the legal limit at 780 micrograms per cubic metre. Under the court ruling, EGAT will need to pay each resident up to Bt 246,900 ($ 7,000), plus interest, and to cover relocation costs for families and find each of them new farmland at least 5 kilometres away from the plant, to rehabilitate the environment at the coal mine, and to replace the golf course with trees.
In 2004, 35 lawsuits have been filed against EGAT by several hundred villagers with the support from the Council of Work and Environment Related Patient Network of Thailand (WEPT). This case actually was one of the access to justice case studies in the third TAI assessment in Thailand implemented during 2006 and 2007 by Thailand Environment Institute (TEI) and its coalition partners. The coalition examined related laws and policies, tracked information distributed from related agencies such as EGAT, Pollution Control Department, Greenpeace Southeast Asia as well as interviewed representatives from EGAT, WEPT and mass media.
The Mae Moh case study yields the following findings that clearly reflect the situation also found in other cases of similar environmental and health impacted problems in Thailand. Existing laws do facilitate access to justice of litigants and clearly define the scope and responsibilities of agencies and organizations that handle complaints and appeals. However, such laws require improvement on the determination of time frame to finish trial proceedings. As well, there are ambiguous definitions of certain provisions in some laws thereby requiring a wide degree of discretion by those involved in the deliberation.
In term of governmental effort, state agencies have made an effort to disseminate environmental information among general public, still it is hard for local communities to access the information because the disclosed information is sometimes too technical and was distributed through limited channels. In term of effectiveness, apart from the court adjudication to have the plant operator provides compensation to villagers and together with other measures to mitigate negative health and environmental impacts on the people in general, effective measures to control pollution are also required to ensure that the power plant would no longer cause social and environmental impacts to their communities.
The victory of the villages in this case signifies a new era whereby the grassroots people have a better access to justice in the area of environmental management than in the past. However, capacities of local agencies and local people must be developed, so that they would acquire knowledge about laws related to the environment and are able to participate in investigations of violations of such laws and monitoring implementation of the court orders.