ROI ET – Locals affected by pollution from a power plant in Roi Et Province are planning to sue the government after the number of residents with respiratory diseases more than tripled in the past few years.

Saengchan Pathumdee used to raise his buffalo along the fields of Nong Muang Village in Roi Et Province, an area where just one rai of land used to cost around a million baht.

But in 1994 when power plants were built in the area – just three kilometers from Roi Et’s capital district – land prices tumbled to less than 200,000 baht a rai.

“When the factories came, no one wanted to stay. The water [from the factory] leaked out, and it looked pretty scary,” said Mr. Saengchan, village chief of Nong Muang in Muang District.

Saengchan Pathumdee, village chief of Nong Muang Village in Roi Et Province’s Muang District, claims that the power plants in the area have made nearby land unusable for farming.

Water and noise pollution forced many residents to sell their land to the power plants for a few hundred thousand baht. Now, the land next to the plant’s walls that used to be in local hands is owned by a company called Buasommai Co., Ltd, and has been turned into a makeshift camp for migrant workers.

Locals say the cattle and buffalo they raise won’t even drink from a nearby pond, which has turned black due to the wastewater released from the factories.

Three rice husk biomass power plants are currently operating in Nuea Mueang Subdistrict; one by Roi-Et Green Co., and the other two by Buasommai Electricity Generating Co., a subsidiary of Buasommai Co. All three are small-sized power plants with a production capacity of 9-9.9 MW each. There are some 10,800 locals residing in seven villages nearby the power plants.

Air pollution due to the dust caused by the burning of rice husk to generate electricity has been the main cause of the conflict between locals and the power plants that started in 2007. Residents also believe their water source is contaminated.

Records of the Health Promoting Hospital of Ban Nong Nasang in Muang District Hospital show that there has been a steep increase of patients suffering from respiratory, eye, and throat diseases in recent years. The number of cases more than tripled in six years, rising from 2,232 in 2009 to 7,602 in 2015.

“As long as there are power plants, the problem with air pollution will never go away,” says hospital director Chaiyan Moonmanee. “The black dust which results from the burning of rice husks is definitely dangerous and causes air pollution. And we’re not even taking into account noise pollution from the machinery.”

Photos provided by the Health Promoting Hospital of Ban Nong Nasang in Muang District showing a child’s skin covered in rashes, and dust gathering in a container filled with water left outdoors.

Mr. Chaiyan pointed out that the three power plants were not obliged to conducted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) as each plant has a capacity of less than 10MW. According to Thai law, an EIA is only compulsory for power plants with an installed power of 10MW or more.

But the combined capacity of all three plants, which are located close to each other, is almost 30 MW, which shows a loophole in the regulations regarding the conducting of EIAs for power plants, said Mr. Chaiyan.

Nikom Rakputtha, the village chief of Ban Nong Buathong, is preparing to file a lawsuit against the government. In 2013, he and some other locals filed a lawsuit against the Department of Pollution Control for negligence of duty in allowing the power plants to operate. The administrative court in Ubon Ratchathani Province dismissed the lawsuit due to insufficient evidence.

“We now have a working group that is collecting evidence to file another lawsuit. I think the government also needs to take responsibility for its mistakes instead of letting the people suffer alone,” Mr. Nikom told The Isaan Record.

Mr. Nikom also claimed that locals have information that the operating permit of one of the power plants expired more than five years ago, and that he will use this information in court.

Village chief Nikom Rakputtha has had enough of the pollution caused by three power plants close to his home. He is preparing a lawsuit against the government.

Pawan Ekatas, a committee member of an environmental network in the province, said for the past decade, locals have lodged complaints with several government agencies, but no progress has been made.

In 2011, a petition was submitted to the Roi Et governor opposing the expansion of the power plants. Last year, the Roi Et governor and the deputy commander of the 27th Military Circle in Roi Et jointly chaired a committee to solve the ongoing environmental issues.

“One year, the Department of Pollution came for a test and it turned out that the dust levels exceeded the standards. But nothing has been done up until now,” Ms. Pawan said.

Reporting by Danuchat Boon-aran. Danuchat is a participant of The Isaan Journalism Network Project 2017 organized by The Isaan Record.