Credibility Leak in Wastewater Project

Bangkok Post 28 May 2000

By Supradit Kanwanich

ENVIRONMENT: The villagers of Klong  Daan say they are not against a wastewater treatment project, they're just questioning why it has to be surrounded by so many suspicious circumstances such as inflated land costs.

The villagers of Klong Daan, where the Samut Prakan  Wastewater Management Project is being constructed, are not  opposed to the project. But they wonder why taxpayers are paying more than a million baht a rai for land which costs only 480,000 baht a rai. Upon investigation, they found more questions in the way the project was begun, in the treatment system used, and in the way the land was purchased. Finally, they point out that the land was unsuitable for such a project.

They point out that not only is the land beyond the original proposed project area, it is also subject to sea flooding and sea erosion, and rests on a bed of mud-too soft for such a large infrastructure.

GRABBING ATTENTION

After years of villager protests, the Interior Ministry finally called on the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry to do something about the Samut Prakan Wastewater Management Project in Tambon Klong Daan.

In July last year, acting governor of the area, Sucharit Nanthamontri, called on the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry (STEM) to consider the demands of the villagers.

Some 1,500 villagers from Tambon Klong Daan of Bang Bor district rallied at the RoyalPlaza in Bangkok in late March last year to ask Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to suspend the project.

Early in July, some 300 villagers rallied along Sukhumvit Road in front of the project site on kilometre 59, calling for the Pollution Control Department of the STEM to delay construction.

They said the wastewater treatment system would affect their farms on the coast where many of them raise molluscs. What prompted these village folks to abandon their livelihoods several times and spend precious time and money to get the government's attention?

THE PEOPLE'S DEMANDS

In a letter dated July 2 last year, the Samut Prakan governor called the attention of the STEM permanent secretary, Mr Santhad Somchevita, to the demonstration and the villagers' demands:uthat academics or neutral parties conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA);udelay the ongoing construction; uguarantee compensation to villagers should the wastewater treatment system affect their livelihoods, and; uprobe the Klong Daan Tambon Administration Organisation (TAO) for making a false statement to authorities that a TAO meeting in January 1998 approved the project construction.

THE GOVERNOR REPLIES

The provincial authority admitted that no EIA or evaluation had been made but claimed this was because the project in the pollution control area in Samut Prakan would be processed on a "turn-key basis".

Representatives from independent environmental and academic institutions, commented on the project long before it started.

An EIA study is required by Article 56 of the 1997 Constitution. Though the project was approved before the new Constitution was in place, it must still proceed according to the most current constitutional laws, they say.

As for the second demand, provincial authorities agreed that there is reason to delay the 22,955-million-baht project while an EIA study is conducted. They admitted that great damage would occur should the project destroy the environment.

The demand for a government guarantee should the wastewater treatment system damage the villagers' livelihoods or lifestyles is according to the rights of the people under the Constitution, the authorities said.

The authorities had assigned Bang Bor district to create a fact-finding committee to investigate the allegedly false statement of the Klong Daan TAO.

In his letter, acting governor Sucharit concluded that the demands of the villagers required urgent attention.

FLOOD RISK

One of the villagers' leaders,  Chalao Thimthong, wrote to Mr Sucharit in June last year. He said the site between kilometres 58 and 59 is not suitable for a large-scale project as it is subject to seawater flooding. Chalao pointed out that sea floods occur regularly in the area up to Sukhumvit Road. Indeed, it is so regular that the Highway Department constructed an earth  dike to prevent Sukhumvit Road from flooding.

Mr Chalao also noted in his letter that a large canal-Klong Don-runs through the project site. This means that the project will have to fill in the canal and make a detour. He added that the large canal helps drain water from the Nang Hong watergate into the sea.

At the moment, he pointed out in his letter, the site of the treatment pond is about 100 metres from the sea. However, up to 20 metres of the topsoil is washed down to the sea each year.

Lastly, he pointed out, the site also rests on soft mud with a subsidence rate of at least 10 centimetres a year.

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

Mr Chalao said the anaerobic treatment pond, which emits  strong odours, and the residue drying field are located too near communities. To the east lies Group 12 of Ban Silong of Tambon Klong Daan. About one kilometre away lies the WatSilongSchool on Sukhumvit Road as well as the BanSilongSchool in Chachoengsao province.

Less than one kilometre to the west are the villages of Group 9, 10 and 11and Wat Sawang Arom. To the north are four schools.

He also said that when the project was moved, from the west part of the province (Klong Bang Plakod) and from the east (Bang Pumai between kilometres 38 and 39 of Sukhimvit Road) to Tambon Klong Daan between kilometres 58 and 59, the budget jumped from 13,612 million baht to 22,955 million baht.

"It's not right to construct the country's largest wastewater treatment plant (and also the largest in South East Asia) in Tambon Klong Daan where there is no industrial area at all. "Its a green area, without pollution which is a major source of the country's seafood," he said. Despite the national economic recession, the 30,000 villagers were hardly affected because of practising sustainable harvesting of aquaculture.

Mr Chalao also said: "The bidding was not transparent. You can see this from the complaint by a German company which participated. The company made a petition to the German Embassy here, which forwarded the complaint to Minister Suvit Khunkitti of STEM on April 23, 1999.

REASONS TO BE DOUBTFUL

Inhabitants, non-governmental organisations and environmental activists also point out the artificially high land price, the soft mud beneath and coastal flooding and erosion.

Although one can set the price on one's own land, people have exercised their right to question state expenditure, particularly since the billions come from public taxes. All 17 plots comprising the project area were sold by one company-suggesting acquisition, planning and coordination (see graphic).

Finally, despite all opposition, the Pollution Control Department continued to say that the project was viable, the price of the land was justified and the purchase was done in accordance with official procedures.

CONFLICTING LAND PRICES

The Pollution Control Department (PCD)'s report on the land purchase describes the project as located on Sukhumvit Road, on the seaside in Tambon Klong Daan of Bang Bor district.

The report specified 1,903 rai and 31 square wah from 17 plots of land, costing 1,956.6 million baht. However, on January 12, 1998, the Bang Pli Land Office estimated each rai to be worth 480,000 baht. PCD officials say official procedures are followed. For the mid-1996 land purchase, former PCD chief Pakit Kirawanich appointed three committees to oversee the bidding process, price evaluation and land deal inspection.

Also, government procedures require land prices to be estimated by at least two commercial banks.

The First Bangkok City Bank in January 23, 1998 replied to the PCD request for a price estimation of the 17 plots of land. So far no client has contacted the bank to use land near there as collatoral. The bank had to consider the location, environment and qualification of the land to see whether it is suitable for commercial area development or farming.

The 17 plots requested for estimation were on the muddy coast with natural high and low tides. Though government authorities had made a road into it with watergates preventing seawater from encroaching into the freshwater area, the purpose of land usage was different. The bank, therefore, had no available data on the land price estimation.

Meanwhile, the Thai Military Bank told the PCD on January 16, 1998 that the land along the seaside in Tambon Klong Daan has rarely been taken as collatoral for loans. There was rarely any land purchase in the area, and the bank had no data for an accurate and suitable price estimation.

The project contractor, who chose and recommended the land for the project site, justified the expensive land purchase by allegedly comparing the cost of three other land plots:

        1. About 137 rai of Patco Land Co Ltd which was purchased by the Finance Ministry on November 7, 1996 at a cost of 1 million baht a rai or about 2,500 baht a square wah.

        2. 52.6 square wah of Singhland Co Ltd land which was priced at 2.38 mil lion baht on October 8, 1997 as quoted by the PCD. However, a two-storey house of 181.90 square metres was built on the land and the land price was estimated at 10,000 baht a square wah or 4 million baht a rai.

        3. 45 square wah of Varocha Homeland Co Ltd land which was priced at 1,090,000 baht on July 2, 1997 as claimed by the PCD, or 9.68 million baht a rai. However, the PCD did not mention that a two-storey house of 91 square metres was built over the land with the average construction cost of 3,650 baht per square metre.

Village leader Chalao Thimthong points out that these parcels of land were located far from the wastewater treatment project area.

Mr Chalao said that the Pollution Control Department selected pieces of land which were unsuitable. There were also other discrepancies.

For instance, PatcoLand's property is located north of Sukhumvit Road, far from the sea. Since it is not subject to sea flooding or erosion, it should be more expensive. Furthermore, Mr Chalao said, the land is arable, not saline.

On the other hand, the Singhland property, which is a developed real estate project and therefore more expensive, was located about six kilometres from the proposed location, some three kilometres from the Bang Na-Trat Highway. He also pointed out that the Varocha property was located in Tambon Bang Prieng of Bang Bor district, also a developed real estate project on Thepharak Road near the Bang Na-Trat Highway. It is only 45 square wah but with a house constructed on it and should not be compared to the 17 plots of muddy land.

He said that the contractor should have checked the prices of plots of land in Group 11 of Tambon Klong Daan, right where the project site is.