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Don't sacrifice public health for development

Thailand's economic development goal appears to have collided with the well-being of hundreds of thousands of residents at Map Ta Phut and other industrial districts in Rayong province.

This was evidenced by the Central Administrative Court's ruling last Tuesday, which required that 76 industrial projects in the area to temporarily suspend their operations.

The court's injunction will lead to further investigation if these schemes, that are either under construction or in other stages of development, are not being executed in accordance with the Constitution's Article 67.

Under the charter, projects are required to undergo a health-impact assessment (HIA), public consent and approval from an independent environment-protection body.

This means that communities, where the industrial projects will be situated, will be given a say in the approval process.

For instance, community representatives will get to sit along with local government and other officials on committees that will then give these projects the go ahead.

For residents of Map Ta Phut and other industrial districts, such participation in the decision-making process is necessary, given that their lives have been negatively affected by heavy industries over the past decades.

Cases of cancer and other serious illnesses, believed to have resulted from industrial pollution, are widespread in these areas.

On the economic front, the court's verdict, however, has put private and public investment in the 76 Rayong projects worth a combined Bt330 billion at risk.

The confidence of foreign and Thai investors has been hit hard, badly affecting the shares of industrial giants such as PTT and Siam Cement Group, especially since several of these suspended schemes belong to these firms.

PTT's gas-separation plant No 6 as well as its petrochemical scheme for the production of HDPE, and its condensate-residue splitter scheme were among the projects put on hold, even though they had already passed environmental impact assessments and were pending the approval of operating licences.

Now, however, these projects could be delayed by one year, affecting an estimated 5 per cent of earnings.

Due to these uncertainties, stock prices of PTT and its affiliates have reacted to reflect the impact on earnings.

An SCBS projection shows that, in the worst-case scenario, the impact could translate to Bt15 per share for PTT, Bt8 to Bt12 for PTTCH (PTT Chemical) and Bt0.3 per share for PTTAR (PTT Aromatic).

According to the brokerage house, the risk of these listed stocks has already been priced in and it is expected that negative impacts will be minimised soon largely because the court's order has had enormous implications on the economy and investor sentiment.

Besides the government has said it would lodge an appeal with the court to allow some projects that have fully complied with the law to go ahead.

After all, it is clear that Thailand is at a crossroads as far as industrialisation and the people's well-being are concerned. Gone are the days when residents would just shut their eyes as long as new industrial projects brought jobs and income to their communities.

Today, the public's role in decision-making and their activity in politics have reached new heights - thanks to sanctions in the charter as well as the Central Administrative Court's review on government policies and decisions.

In the end, the government will have to chart a new course on national economic development, especially with regard to heavy industries that create a lot of pollution, to ensure that the development path is more compatible with people's quality of life.

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