The disaster last weekend at Map Ta Phut, the country's largest petrochemical complex, is not the first and will probably not be the last as long as good safety measures are not put in place and strictly enforced.
Proclaimed as a non-pollution zone since May 1, 2009, the Rayong complex has yet to win public confidence on its safety measures, especially from the more than 20 communities living nearby.
According to Pollution Control Department (PCD) data since May 2009, 25 chemical-related mishaps took place in Rayong before the most recent incident at BST Elastomers. Six incidents involved the illegal dumping of chemical waste, nine involved transport-related accidents, seven mishaps occurred in manufacturing facilities, and three accidents originated from manufacturing compounds, such as fuel stations and waste-recycling shops. The accidents killed three and injured 187 others.
The explosion on Saturday at the BST Elastomers plant at Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, which is operated by the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT), killed 11 people and injured more than 140 others. It has been called the worst incident in the past few years.
The PCD also discovered that from 2011 to March this year, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the form of gases were emitted from certain solids or liquids, some of which might affect the health adversely. It found above-average levels of butadiene gas at the Map Ta Phut healthcare promotion hospital and the health office at Ban Takuan; chloroform at Wat Nong Fab School; and dichloroethane at the Map Ta Phut healthcare promotion hospital as well as Wat Map Chalude and the Ban Phlong community. It also found above-average levels of benzene at seven sites.
People living near the BST Elastomers plant are returning after being evacuated on Saturday, though they are concerned about the chemicals they might still be breathing in. Not many trust the announcements by the company and the IEAT that the blast only involved toluene gases, which though they cause breathing problems and skin irritation are non-carcinogenic.
On Sunday, sodium hypochlorite, which is used as a disinfectant or bleaching agent, leaked from the Aditya Birla Chemicals (Thailand) plant at the Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate nearby, further battering public confidence.
Deputy Public Health Minister Surawit Khonsomboon said 125 suffered from minor asthma attacks due to the leakage, but he insisted yesterday that 11 people being treated for symptoms from the leak should be discharged in the next day or two.
The authorities are trying to contain the damage, and operations at both plants have been temporarily suspended. Meanwhile, mobile medical units and officers from the Mental Health Department were dispatched yesterday to check on villagers and ease their worries.
Industry Minister Pongsvas Svasti, who was in Rayong for a second day yesterday, told the IEAT to strengthen its monitoring and surveillance system.
He said safety measures and action plans must be strengthened and strictly implemented at all industrial estates.
“No more mishaps like this are allowed any more,” the minister said.
Veerapon Puangpitayavut, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries in Rayong, told The Nation he was afraid that incidents like these would worsen the conflicts between industrialists and villagers.
Ironically, one of the projects that will very likely test the turbulent waters belongs to Bangkok Syn-thetics, the parent company of BST Elastomers.
The company’s plan to expand its mixed-C4 capacity at the Map Ta Phut facility by 35 per cent has been subjected to thorough scrutiny by the Independent Health and Environ-mental Committee.
At the December 1 meeting, only one member endorsed the project, six voted “no” and another six said the BST could go ahead provided it completed all the requirements. A full endorsement is required for the project to go ahead.
Since 17 communities are within a 5-kilometre radius of the BST plant, the panel expressed concerns over 12 points related to the production process.
Among these, the committee noted that the project lacked a concrete plan of action to cope with partial or total rupture of a hydrogen pipeline, posing fears about whether the IEAT would be prepared if anything serious happened.
The committee also pointed at the absence of an estimation of the VOCs present in underground water, and while the project evaluated risks from fire and explosion, there was no evaluation of the domino effects from toxins in the air.
After the incidents last weekend, Bangkok Synthetics could be the first company to suffer severe setbacks, though it certainly will not be the last if the authorities are unable to restore public confidence in relation to safety measures.