Can Access to Information Protect Communities from Pollution? A Lesson from Map Ta Phut, Thailand
Today is International Right to Know Day, a global initiative to share ideas and stories on right to information (RTI) laws and transparent governance. This blog post provides an inside look at how citizens from one Thai community are seeking access to information in order to protect themselves from environmental pollution.
On May 5, 2012, 12 people were killed and 129 injured in Thailand’s Rayong Province. The devastation occurred when a holding tank containing toluene exploded at the Bangkok Synthethics petrochemical factory in Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, an area housing nearly 150 industrial facilities. The very next day, a mixture of hypochlorite and hydrochloric acid gas leaked from Map Ta Phut’s Aditya Birla Chemical Plant, sending 138 people to the hospital.
As the Bangkok Post noted, the more than 49,000 residents in areas surrounding Map Ta Phut received no warnings about the industrial accidents. They were not told if it was safe to remain in the region or if they should evacuate. In fact, details about the toxic chemicals released during the accidents were not even immediately provided to community members.
Leaving residents in the dark about the dangers they faced undeniably threatened their health. But what would have happened if community members already had information about the chemicals regularly used and emitted by Map Ta Phut’s industries? What if they understood the risks of being exposed to these chemicals and how to cope with these dangers should accidents happen? Would having easy access to information about the industrial estate help them protect themselves from industrial accidents and pollution?
These are the questions The Access Initiative (TAI) and its partner, the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI), are hoping to answer through an ongoing project examining the effectiveness of Thailand’s freedom of information rules. By evaluating existing rules and pushing for better transparency, we hope that communities like those surrounding Map Ta Phut can safeguard themselves against environmental toxins.
Map Ta Phut: A History of Pollution
Established by the government of Thailand, the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate has a long, documented history of air and water pollution. Home to 147 factories—including petrochemical plants, oil refineries, coal-fired power stations, iron and steel facilities, and an industrial port—the Estate occupies 8,000 acres built over about 30 agricultural and residential communities.
In 2009, villagers from Map Ta Phut—with help from the People’s Eastern Network, a local NGO–filed a lawsuit before the Rayong Administrative Court to stop the expansion of the estate’s industries. The court issued a ruling acknowledging that Map Ta Phut pollution adversely affects people’s health and the environment and ordered a plan to reduce the pollution. The court also suspended 76 industrial projects due to their failure to conduct health impact assessments, which are required under Thailand’s Constitution.
Since the court’s ruling and finalization of health assessments, progress has been slow in addressing continued pollution and in analyzing the potential risks posed by discharges and the release of companies’ stored chemicals. Plus, additional factories have been allowed into Map Ta Phut, leaving communities vulnerable to ongoing pollution.
Examining Access to Information in Map Ta Phut
Thailand issued new rules under its Official Information Act in 2010, requiring state agencies to make certain types of environmental and health information publicly available to citizens even if they haven’t filed official information requests (which are similar to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests). This includes information on pollutants, their health impacts, and efforts to monitor and resolve environmental health issues caused by industrial sources. The Access Initiative and the Thailand Environment Institute have been working to assess whether community members within and around the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate can actually obtain the information specified under these new rules.
In June 2011, Thailand Environment Institute held a meeting with 15 villagers from various communities around Map Ta Phut. Community members and other stakeholders prepared a list of information they sought. A few examples from the community include:
• A list of factories in the Map Ta Phut estate that fail to adhere to government air and water quality standards;
• Safety of drinking water;
• What pollutants factories release into the air and water;
• Information about the health impacts associated with the pollutants released.
Community members and Thailand Environment Institute searched government agencies’ websites and local offices for this information, but found that none of it was available. Citizens then made official information requests—with mixed results. In almost all of the cases referenced above, agencies provided information after an unreasonable delay. For two of the requests, information was only obtained after citizens filed an appeal with the information commissioner’s office, which hears appeals regarding government agencies’ failure to obey the Official Information Act. Ultimately, agencies never released a list of factories violating standards, nor did they provide information on pollutants’ health impacts. Some relevant information was released on factories’ impacts on water quality as well as locations where factories released pollutants into rivers.
Can More Information Lead to Better Protection?
Access to information is an essential foundation for achieving environmental justice. Without easily accessible information, villagers cannot answer basic questions about their right to clean air and water. They cannot participate in the process meant to hold the Thai government and Map Ta Phut industries accountable.
To that end, The Access Initiative will continue its work in the Map Ta Phut region. We’re currently working on analyzing data and anecdotes we’ve collected on the ground. This data as well as policy recommendations for strengthening Thailand’s right to information laws will be published in a forthcoming report. By developing these recommendations, we can hopefully empower Map Ta Phut citizens—and communities across the globe—to demand meaningful information and protect themselves from industrial pollution.