By Janesara Fugal (AFP) – Sep 4, 2010
BANGKOK — Noi Jaitang's voice is laced with bitter helplessness as he faces the reality that his rural Thai village could once again be engulfed with fumes he blames for a litany of family illnesses.
"I don't understand why they please industry but not the people who were here first. If I could talk to the prime minister, I would tell him to sympathise with us and see our pain," the 71-year-old said.
A year after legal action halted 76 projects at the vast Map Ta Phut industrial estate on Thailand's eastern seaboard, a court dismissed the case on Thursday and opened the way for a full-scale resumption of works there.
Industry expressed relief after the decision, which is expected to end a hiatus that froze billions of dollars of investment and tarnished Thailand's reputation among international investors.
But the activists and villages behind the action have been left angry and bewildered by a ruling they believe does not address health and environmental concerns.
Allegations against the plants from nearby villages are grave -- record cancer rates and respiratory disease in the area are blamed on a toxic cocktail pumped into the air from the estate.
Noi, who blames respiratory problems on the fumes wafting across fields to his house, said his wife has had cancer of the face twice and that his children have been sick from acid rain.
He said his "heart was torn" by the verdict and questioned whether the Thai premier had betrayed local people in a rush to appease big business.
It is a charge Abhisit Vejjajiva has denied.
"The government has not neglected the people's lives nor the impact on the environment," he said on Friday.
But in a sign that the focus was already shifting to opportunities presented by resuming work at the estate, the prime minister also noted Japan's warm reception of the ruling, and signs that it could boost investment.
Chainoi Puankosoom, president of PTTAR, part of the industrial conglomerate PTT Plc, said the company had invested about 130 billion baht (four billion dollars) in its 25 Map Ta Phut projects.
"The suspension only damaged the investment atmosphere," he said.
"We are more than ready to resume our operations as soon as possible."
Thursday's ruling said projects would now be subject to a list of 11 types of industrial activity deemed harmful -- including petrochemicals, mining, power plants, dams and airport runways -- announced just two days earlier.
Projects in those categories would be required to have impact assessments.
"I suspected it would end this way, after the cabinet approved the list," said Suthi Atchasai, an environmental activist with the People's Eastern Network, based in Rayong, where Map Ta Phut is located.
The group now wants the list to be extended or scrapped.
Projects were originally suspended in September 2009 after activists led by Srisuwan Janya of Thailand's Stop Global Warming Association filed a suit against state agencies alleging industrial permits were illegally issued.
That court based its decision on rules, brought in under a 2007 military-backed constitution, that all firms should carry out health and environmental assessments before beginning new works.
Eleven of the Map Ta Phut projects deemed to have limited environmental impact were later allowed to resume and now only two are thought to come under the new rules requiring them to undergo environmental assessments.
Businesses complained the 2007 regulations were costly and confusing, and the government list is an effort at simplification.
Payungsak Chartsutipol, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, said it gives firms a regulatory path to follow.
"The ruling is clarity, so now the government, investors and also local organisations know what to do," he said.
But he expressed concern about the level of opposition from local communities to new investment projects.
"If only they would listen with an open mind, they could talk to us first before rejecting us," he said.
The Map Ta Phut case and the strident grassroots movement around it ruffled feathers in a country where local voices often appear to go unheard.
Heavy pollution from the estate was first noticed in the 1980s, but it was not until 1997 that villagers formed a green movement after children attending a neighbouring school were taken ill.
In 2003 the National Cancer Institute found that the highest rates of cancer in Thailand were in Rayong province.
Lawyer Srisuwan, who said the action was funded out of the activists' own pockets, vowed to appeal the ruling.
He believes the court has wrongly applied the list retrospectively and complained that the Map Ta Phut projects had been let "off the hook".
"I will not stop fighting," he said.
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