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The explosion and fire at a factory in the middle of a populated area near Suvarnabhumi International Airport proves the lack of vision and law enforcement in town planning and public safety.

Remains of the Ming Dhi Chemical factory. (Source: The Pollution Control Department)

One firefighter died, 40 people were injured, 70 houses were damaged and over 80,000 people were evacuated from the area. The danger of pollution from the chemical explosion at Ming Dhi Chemical Co Ltd lingered in the aftermath of the fire that was eventually put out on 6 June after 2 days of desperate fire-fighting, according to Thai PBS.

Scenes resembling an apocalyptic movie could not have come at a worse time, when the already high Covid-19 infection rate has brought about a semi-lockdown across Bangkok and nearby provinces, forcing many to stay at home and tying up the authorities with disease control.

There are lessons to learn from this tragedy, because this kind of time bomb is ticking away elsewhere in the country.

Legitimacy doubtful because of zoning

Registered in 1989, the Taiwan-based company has operated its factory at Kingkaew Road, Bang Phli District, since then, earning roughly 1.2 billion baht in 2020 according to its annual financial report, with profits of between 18.5 and 29.8 million baht per year since 2016.

A satellite image from Google Map shows the factory's location in the middle of populated area and close to the Suvarnabhumi Airport.

Data from the Department of Industrial Works shows that the foam and plastic pellet producing factory was registered as producing synthetic resin, elastomer rubber, and plastic or non-glass synthetic fibre under a 00440 classification or Category 44, a number that will become an issue later on.

At the time it was constructed, there were no residences in the area. The factory location was legitimate. The situation changed when the first Samut Prakan Comprehensive Plan on overall city zoning was published in 1994 categorizing the area as a commercial zone.

The zoning aimed to develop aviation-related businesses in the area to support the then planned Suvarnabhumi International Airport which has since been constructed. Many related industries were allowed to set up factories there, together with residential and commercial areas, government offices and public facilities.

However, Category 44 factories are not allowed to operate there. The zoning has changed over time but the factory has kept the same category and its existence became illegitimate before the fire took place.

“Town planning issues are everyone’s issues. But you don’t think according to how you feel. You must have principles, have correct information. It’s like how we estimate risk. The risk cannot be assumed. You can’t come and say ‘for me, it won’t catch fire; for me, it won’t explode’.

“Therefore, what needs to be thought of further in the future is, these risks are a cost. And this cost, what will we do in order to be able to live with an appropriate cost and have an acceptable rate of risk,” said Assoc Prof Panit Pujinda, President of the Thai City Planners Society and Head of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University, in a public panel discussing the incident.

Firefighters enter the ruined factory area. (Source: The Pollution Control Department)

Panit said that with regard to land use that predates any zoning restrictions, Section 37 of the 2019 Town Planning Act allows the Town Planning Commission or the Provincial Town Planning Committee to take various measures if the land use is contrary to the zoning plan with regard to public safety, social welfare or public interests.  The measures range from ordering a change in the land use to relocation. 

However, the Act provides for compensation and it is a big question as to where the compensation should come from. In principle, the compensation must come from those who benefit from the new zoning, which is the new residents, who he believes would not pay. 

With no clear mechanism of how to deal properly with the factory, the community had to bear the risk of living there. If the factory were relocated to an industrial estate, the cost of the risk would be much lower as there are professional safety measures in place. Panit said this case reflects how cheaply the factory has paid for the risk of operating outside an industrial estate by externalising the cost to the nearby areas and local administration.

Green News also reported that the 3-decade-old factory has not passed any Environmental Impact Assessment, a mechanism which would assess the risks and impacts of the factory and which includes a public hearing twice a year. The reason given by the Deputy Director-General of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning is that the factory was established before the implementation of the EIA Act in 1992.

Laws keep communities in the dark

The regulations governing the setting up of factories in Thailand were loosened in the 2019 Factory Act. This changed the validity of factory licenses from 5 years to a de facto permanent as it has the third-party, private companies do the job of renewing the license instead of the government officers.

It also allows factories with less than 50 horsepower to operate without having to register for a license. 

Meanwhile, attempts to regulate externalised costs are lagging behind. A draft Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers Act (PRTR) proposed by the Move Forward Party, which would require factories to make public a record of chemical substances released or stored, was rejected by the Prime Minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, after it was categorized as a finance-related law.

The PM has the constitutional power to reject finance-related laws. This provision has been used as a technical gambit to reject laws that the government is not happy with, such as a draft Military Service Act which would abolish conscription.

EnLaw, a foundation promoting civil rights issues related to the environment, posted that a PRTR law would allow the public to know whether factories release or store any kind of chemical substance in their area, giving the people and local authorities an opportunity and time to prepare for the risk.

“The explosion and fire at this Kingkaew factory shows that the people have no information at all about how dangerous the chemical or toxic substances are, how the dispersal of pollutants affects them, and so why it is necessary to evacuate. When there is no such information, there is no preparation to cope safely,”

Bound to happen elsewhere

There are other places in Thailand where either factory zones are located very close to a community, or zoning allows a wide variety of factories to operate in a community zone, especially in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), a flagship industrial project initiated by the junta government in 2014.

On 17 January 2017, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta issued Order No. 2/2560 on the development of the EEC. This Order later transitioned into the 2018 Eastern Economic Corridor Act, establishing a committee with various powers to implement the project, including the power to ignore urban planning regulations and design projects as they see fit.

EEC (2): Hear the voice of the local people when the state-capital 'legally' grabs land

The EEC Act has resulted in many agricultural zones in Chachoengsao, Chon Buri and Rayong provinces being turned into industrial zones. It has also created a new type of zoning where various types of factories can operate inside residential areas, such as in Pan Thong District, Chon Buri, where EEC zoning has increased the industrial area. 

The 20-year EEC Plan (2017-2037), aims to increase industrial zones in eastern Thailand by 64 percent. This causes concerns for people in the area who already face many pollution problems from existing factories. 

A map of expected EEC zoning in 2037. Some industrial areas (in purple) are located close to residential areas (in orange).

A document from the CSO Network of Eastern Friends submitted to the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Land, Natural Resources and the Environment in Economic Zones and the Eastern Economic Corridor shows that over 2.6 bn tonnes, or 55 percent of industrial waste, was dumped outside waste disposal plants. There have also been cases of the irresponsible dumping of industrial waste in public areas.

Somnuck Jongmeewasing, an academic expert on the environment and health in eastern Thailand, said the east has been used as a Special Economic Zone since the 1990s under the banner of the Eastern Seaboard. The EEC represents just one more concern about the impact on people’s livelihoods.

Somnuk said the 64 percent increase in industrial areas plus another 30 percent in residential areas open for many kinds of factories would mean massive land development which will expose communities to more risk. 

He said the NCPO orders following the 2014 coup, laws passed by the appointed National Legislative Assembly and the removal of community rights and environmental rights from the Constitution has made new special economic zones feasible. If there had been no coup, such an uncompromising project like this would not happen.

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