The Mae Moh Coal Power Plant has 13 generating units with a total capacity of 2,625 megawatt (MW). It is located in the mountains of Lampang province in northern Thailand. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), it has been involved in Mae Moh mine for financing several units. It approved a series of loans amounting to more than US$352 million for the past twenty years.
The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) constructed the plants in four phases from 1978 to 1996. It owns and operates the Mae Moh Power Plant which is fueled by an open pit lignite mine which produces 40,000 tons per day. With an area of 135 square kilometers, it is considered the largest coal-fired power plant in Southeast Asia.
The project aims to answer the growing electricity demand in Metropolitan Bangkok and rural areas. According to the ADB and EGAT, the project is highly successful since the project objectives involving least-cost nature, system loss reduction, and system stability and reliability have been met.
However in reality, taking into consideration the social and environment impacts, the project is far from being successful.
Environmental and Social Impacts According to Greenpeace, the Mae Moh power plant approximately contributes more than four million tons of carbon dioxide emission in the atmosphere, annually. In addition, around 1.6 million tons of sulfur gas is released from the power plant into the air everyday. Such have caused severe health problems for the people near the site and have led to the deterioration of the environment. More than 200 people have died due to respiratory diseases and lung cancer ever since Mae Moh power plant was operated. (Jessica Rosien, 2004)
Greenpeace further said that from the time of the implementation of the Mae Moh coal power plant, more than 30,000 people have been displaced and thousands acquired severe respiratory problems. This was due to the inhalation and exposure to sulfur dioxide emitted from the mine.
The fly ash has also affected the crops of the villagers. According to one villager, her planted vegetables and fruits died because of the toxic that the coal power plant emitted. Another villager recounted that her pineapple plantation wilt over the years. Farmlands have been negatively affected by acid rain which is attributed to the sulfuric dioxide released by the coal power plant.
In October 1992, when EGAT operated the 11 units at Mae Moh, people residing within the seven-kilometer radius of the plant fell ill with breathing difficulties, nausea, dizziness and inflammation of eyes and nasal cavities. After two months of operation, 50 percent of the rice fields were damaged by acid rain and around 42,000 people were found to have breathing ailment.
In April and May 1996, six people in Mae Moh died of blood poisoning. Greenpeace further said that in 1999, more than 600 people suffered from respiratory problems caused by sulfur dioxide emissions. (Saksit Meesubkwang, 2006)
In October 2003, the State Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning Office found high levels of arsenic, chromium and manganese in almost all water sources within the vicinity of the plant.
In May 2004, the Thai Provincial court awarded US$142,500 to the villagers for crop damages caused by the coal power plant. Greenpeace believes that this compensation is the government’s way of recognizing the plant’s disastrous effect to the lives of the people.
Safeguard Policy Violations
In its technical assistance completion report, the ADB admitted that “the Mae Moh power station, including the Mae Moh mine, has caused environmental and social problems, in particular, local air pollution causing public health problems.” (ADB, TA-CR, 2002)
In 2002, Greenpeace Research Laboratories conducted a study on the Mae Moh coal power plant. Results of the study showed that Mae Moh power plant releases around 4.3 million tons (MT) of fly ash along with 39 tons of neurotoxin mercury annually. Fine powders of fly ash sample were collected which contained elements that are highly toxic to the environment, animals, humans and plants.
Greenpeace said that sample from Mae Moh coal power plant contained very high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, lead and chromium. Arsenic is known to be carcinogenic to humans. It could easily enter groundwater and waterways. Mercury is a well-known neurotoxin. Lead is highly toxic and could damage the environment. It has a long residence time compared with most pollutants. Chromium is also a known carcinogen.
To mitigate the negative impacts of the plant, pollution control devices, such as flue gas desulfurization (FGD) and ionizing wet scrubbers, were installed by the government. However, Greenpeace Research Laboratories stated that the sample ashes still contained very fine particulates, called respirable particles. These elements include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury and zinc. Pollution control devices fail to contain these respirable particles. In the case of Mae Moh, mercury was not completely removed and still reflected high concentration in the sample collected.
Greenpeace stated that end-of-pipe technologies cannot destroy toxic elements that were released to the atmosphere in gaseous form. Treatment of these hazardous elements will only result in the production of additional contaminated waste streams.
Involuntary Resettlement Policy
Due to the implementation of the project, more than 30,000 people have been displaced. According to reports, Thailand’s cabinet previously offered to build houses for those who were affected. However, there has been no progress about this plan until now.
This clearly shows that the ADB and EGAT have no concrete plan and program to address the issue of resettlement of affected villagers. Compensation for the income loss due to farmland degradation was not even included in the implementation of the project. The villagers have to go through the process of filing law suits against the government just to receive just compensation.
The case of the Mae Moh Coal Power Plant is another proof that burning fossil fuel to generate electricity is detrimental to the environment and human health. This has been proven by the many people who acquired respiratory diseases and numerous individuals who died due to toxic elements that were produced by the plant. In the long run, the use of coal power plants does not promote sustainable development.
In spite of pollution control devices, hazardous particles are still present at high levels in the environment. This only means that the only way to end the social and environmental disasters that a coal power plant brings is through a complete stop of its operation. This leaves the ADB and the government to resort to sustainable, renewable and environment-friendly sources of energy such as solar and wind-generation power.
According to Greenpeace, there is a need for the ADB and the host governments of coal power plants to conduct an environmental audit. Based on the Mae Moh experience, there is a need to institutionalize resettlement programs. Just compensation and medical treatment should be provided to the victims of the coal power plant releases.
The ADB should begin accepting responsibility for the social and environmental disaster that the coal power plant has caused the people of Mae Moh. The story of Mae Moh points out that the demand for electricity is not enough reason to take the environment and human life for granted. References:
Asian Development Bank. “Project Performance Audit Report on the Third Power Transmission (Sector) Project (Loan 1170-THA) and Fourth Power Transmission (Sector) Project (Loan 1245-THA) in Thailand.” Manila: ADB, September 2002.
Asian Development Bank. “Technical Assistance Completion Report.” Manila: ADB, March 2002.
Brigden, K., Santillo, D., and Stringer, R. “Hazardous Emissions from Thai Coal-Fired Power Plants.” UK: Greenpeace Research Laboratories, 2002.
Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “All Emission, No Solution: Energy Hypocrisy and the Asian Development Bank in Southeast Asia.” Greenpeace Briefing. May 2005.
Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “An ADB Skeleton in the Closet: Mae Moh.” 2005
Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “Mae Moh: Coal Kills.” Bangkok: Greenpeace Southeast Asia, May 2006.
Meesubkwang, Saksit. “More Locals Claim Poisoning by Mae Moh Power Station in Lampang.”Chiang Mai Mail. Vol. V, No. 26, June 24-June 30, 2006.
Probe International. “New Generation Technology.” May 2000. http://www.threegorgesprobe.org/pi/index.cfm?DSP=content&ContentID=714
Rosien, Jessica. “ADB’s Dirty Involvement in Coal-Fired Power.” Bankwatch. Vol. III, Is. 2, December 2004.