Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thailand's coal imports worry residents

Imports of coal worry residents

Minerals could leach into water supply

By Wichayant Boonchote

An unprecedented influx of 28,000 tonnes of coal for industrial use to this province since early this year has sparked local concerns about dirty air and polluted water caused by the sulphur-containing fuel.

Coal is increasingly popular among industry operators in the province who have imported it from Indonesia as an alternative fuel in place of expensive bunker oil. But the change upset environmentalists and villagers who are worried about its unpleasant impact, which could be intensified by normally frequent rains in the South.

Rain could wash contaminated water from an area where the coal is piled to waterways, paddy fields, and the sea, said Chanong tambon administration organisation (TAO) head Wichan Kongnu.

He was referring to the recent import of 9,000 tonnes of coal that drew strong protests from villagers in tambon Chanong of Chana district. The coal importer dumped the coal shipment in their neighbourhood, pending transfer to customers, which are factories.

''If the coal is stored in an inappropriate manner like this, it could be washed by the rain into waterways, especially in the monsoon season,'' said Jeh-arab Hinmad, kamnan for Chanong.

The company finally decided to move its coal out of the area after it failed to obtain a permit from the TAO to temporarily store the coal in the area.

The coal shipment was rejected by villagers in Singha Nakhon district before being transported to Chana district.

Company manager Pongpan Santad said his company was studying regulations on the coal import and transfer, but had gained little information.

''We have many customers who have ordered coal since late last year because of surging oil prices. Coal would cut their costs up to 60%,'' he said.

Two main importers have bought the coal from Indonesia for factories in Songkhla, according to the Songkhla customs checkpoint.

The coal is of good quality because it has low sulphur content and it has been correctly brought into Thailand, said Songkhla industrial works official Somdi Supamala.

''We have enforced the Factory Act to inspect and control nearly 2,000 factories in Songkhla,'' he said.

However, the increase in coal imports to the province was a serious issue as the impact on the environment could be serious, warned Ruengchai Tansakul, environmental lecturer of Prince of Songkhla University's Hat Yai campus.

Burning coal emits sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which could cause acid rain. He said the rain would disturb plants' growth and dissolve certain heavy metals such as mercury, which could mix with water sources and harm the ecology and human health.

However, many factories were more worried about the economic impact. They were planning to change their machines or adjust them to take coal fuel, said Oran Uyakul, chairman of Federation of Thai Industries for Songkhla. The number of factories in Songkhla which ordered bituminous coal from Indonesia had increased sharply. The coal which contains low sulphur content costs 1.8 baht a kilogramme, compared with 13-14 baht a litre of oil fuel.

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