Black tales from Thailand and Philippines highlight perils of coal


Feature story - December 2, 2004
Fighting to breath, the dying person utters one last, albeit vain, wish - one, just one, big gulp of clean air. A village where the most precious possessions are two oxygen tanks, purchased with donations from the mostly poor farmers who live there, with a long list of the dying waiting for the current users to pass on ahead that they may get their turn.

Hell on earth?

No. Mae Moh in Lampang Province, northern Thailand, home to the largest coal-fired power plant and lignite mine complex in that country, both run by the Energy Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The Mae Moh Power Plant has 13 generating units with a

total capacity of 2,625 megawatts and spews out an average of 7,000 tons of pollutants - sulfur dioxide, mercury and other heavy metals - every day. The power plant complex conveniently sits at the mouth of the Mae Moh mine, whose open pits, spread out over 135 square kilometers, cough up 40,000 tons of lignite daily or a total of 14.02 million tons a year to feed the generating units.

Maliwan Nakwirot, leader of the Patients Rights for Environmental Network Against Pollutants, says more than 10,000 Mae Moh residents in 17 villages within a 20-kilometer radius from the power plant and mine complex suffer from severe respiratory ailments.

Over the past four years, more than 200 have died, many of them in the manner described above, mostly from black lung disease, an illness associated with breathing air laden with too much coal dust. Many others suffer lung cancer, asthma and a host of other respiratory ailments.

There, too, are the crops lost, the waterways and reservoirs poisoned and the livestock killed by acid rain and other pollutants.

Not difficult to imagine if, for the past 20 years, you had to breathe a toxic brew of sulfur dioxide, heavy metals and coal dust. Nakwirot herself says she, her husband and child all suffer from black lung disease. Needless to say, finding treatment for their diseases is way beyond most Mae Moh residents' means.

In fact, Nakwirot said, a relatively well off merchant "has had to sell his teakwood house bit by bit to keep up with his treatment. Today, he is left with only one small room in which he lives hooked up to one of our oxygen tanks."

At first glance, the problems of the people of Calaca, Batangas in the Philippines - home to a 600-MW coal-fired plant operated by the National Power Corp. (NPC) for the last 20 years -- and the village of Baclaran in adjacent Balayan town may seem minuscule given the immensity of the disaster in Mae Moh.

But tell that to the residents of Baclaran where, according to village health workers, more than half of the children suffer respiratory diseases ranging from coughs and colds that refuse to go away, to an uncommonly high incidence of primary complex among infants and pre-adolescents.

Or to Calaca Councilor Rolando Macatangay who makes no bones of the fact that the plant has brought more trouble than it is worth to his town and said, "If I had my way, they should shut it down and transfer it elsewhere."

At a community meeting in Baclaran over the weekend, representatives of Filipino and Thai communities invited to a "Dirty Coal Tour" by Greenpeace, listened to a long litany of suffering.

From being jolted awake early in the morning at least three times a week, nostrils and lungs burning from noxious fumes spewed by the Calaca plant that smell like "rotten eggs" or "burning rubber," to wives and children enduring weeks of separation from husbands and fathers forced to scour fishing grounds as far away as the Spratlys because there is nothing more to catch from the poisoned waters of Balayan Bay.

Four-year old Celine Ocampo and Jane Rachel Guimalan, 9, are typical of the children of Baclaran. Celine's mother, Rachel, says her daughter has had primary complex since she was 2. Aside from having had to undergo massive treatment regimes that include doses of Rifampicin, an antibiotic frequently used to treat tuberculosis, to stave off the worst effects of the disease, she also has to take daily maintenance doses.

Celine's brother, Japhet, 5, used to have primary complex, too, says Rachel. While he has shaken that off, he remains afflicted with chronic cough and colds.

The only relief the children have had, says Rachel, "was when we took a three-month vacation in Cagayan de Oro in southern Philippines where I am from. As soon as we returned to Baclaran, so did their illness."

With a husband who works as a cook, Rachel says, "We are in perpetual deficit just from the children's medication."

Jane Rachel, a Grade 4 student at Baclaran Elementary School, contracted a skin disease when she was just one-year old. Brought by her parents to the University of Sto. Tomas, Jane was also found to be suffering from primary complex. Although she was given immediate treatment at the time, Jane Rachel continued to suffer respiratory ailments that sent her to the hospital an average of three times a year. This October, when she was brought to a doctor, she was found to be suffering from bronchopneumonia and that her primary complex had never really left her. Aside from this, Jane says, "whenever the plant blows out smoke, I have difficulty breathing and feel nauseous."

And yet, Celina and Jane are luckier than many other Baclaran children for, even if it buries them in debt, their parents continue to find ways to give them medical attention. Emelita Cerillo, whose daughters Kristine, 3, and Kathleen, 5, also suffer from primary complex, says many other parents have given up even taking their children for medical check-ups.

Not that they do not care. "The first thing the doctor asks is if we have the means to sustain our children's treatment," Emelita says. "Otherwise, they say it would be useless to begin treatment only to stop halfway. Most people here cannot afford complete treatment just for one child and many of them have more than one child suffering from primary complex."

And those are just the children. Many Baclaran adults suffer their own illnesses in silence, either because they place their children first or, more often, because they simply have no choice.

But if the extent of the disasters coal-fired power plants have wrought on Mae Moh and barangay Baclaran may differ vastly in magnitude, there is one problem they do share - the general indifference of their governments to their plight.

While Nakwirot and the residents of Baclaran are generally resigned to the fact that there is hardly any hope of having the plants where they live shut down because of the issues they have raised, neither have the Thai or Philippine governments done anything to compensate and relocate them to safer places - although they, too, acknowledge that transferring them is not the solution to the pollution that adds to the broth of greenhouse gases that have lad to global warming and climate change.

Coal combustion, after all, emits 29 percent more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil and 80 percent more than natural gas, aside of course from the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide responsible for acid rain.

Then again, they realize that compensation can hardly be expected to come from governments that refuse to acknowledge that the coal-fired plants are responsible

for the host of problems the residents of Mae Moh and Baclaran have suffered for two decades.

Nakwirot says years of lobbying, including rallies and audiences with Thai officials, in Bangkok, some 700 kilometers from Mae Moh, has thus far resulted in nothing so far.

Councilor Macatangay says many local officials of his town feel equally frustrated with the NPC, both for the pollution caused by the plant and the general lack of benefits its has brought.

He is equally disgusted with the "silence" government agencies such as the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources have shown towards repeated reports of pollution, including alarmingly high levels of mercury and other heavy metals around the plant's ash pond, and other environmental problems.

"Calaca is a multi-crop town," the councilor said. "But since the plant operated, we have suffered severe drops in production of bananas, papaya and other crops. The plant's pumping of water has also led to the steady lowering of water levels. The fish catch in Balayan Bay has become almost non-existent and maritime accidents involving coal freighters and fishing boats occur regularly. And yet, for all these problems, the plant also gives us a hard time when it comes to paying its financial obligations."

Macatangay added that it was only 10 years after the plant began operations that any pollution mitigating systems were installed, "and only because we town officials demanded it." In fact, he said, it was only when he served as vice mayor that "we prevailed on the NPC to build a wind barrier and sprinkler system to prevent dust from its coal pile from being blown towards neighboring communities."

Given the circumstances, it may well be too late to ease the plight of the people of Mae Moh and Calaca.

Yet, if there is anything good to be said for their suffering, it may be that it has helped steel the resolve of other communities - both in the Philippines and Thailand - where coal-fired power plants or coal mines are being pushed to resist their entry. In fact, Philippine communities engaged in campaigns to either shut down existing coal-fired plants or prevent the entry of new ones recently formed the nationwide coalition Pinoy Kontra Coal.

Among the coalition's members are Pulupandan in Negros Occidental, the first community in the country to successfully prevent the construction of a coal-fired plant; the Concepcion Alliance for Renewable Energy (COALFREE), which is campaigning against the construction of a plant in the Iloilo town; the Responsible Ilonggos for Sustainable Energy (RISE), the Iloilo-wide alliance that waged the successful campaign to prevent the building of a plant in Banate; the Cebu Alliance for Renewable Energy (CARE) which is supporting efforts of residents of Naga, which already hosts a 250-megawatt plant, to stop the entry of yet another plant, the one rejected by Banate; Mauban, Quezon, host to a 440-MW plant; Sual, Pangasinan, host to yet another plant; and communities in Misamis Oriental, Isabela and Pampanga, where coal-fired plants are also being eyed.

Thai communities participating in the Dirty Coal Tour have also said they would work on setting up a national network opposed to any more coal-fired plants and mines in their country.

Aside from pooling their efforts to resist coal-fired power plants, Pinoy Kontra Coal will also be lobbying for government to shift its priorities from fossil-based energy to renewable energy resources - wind, geothermal, biomass, mini-hydro and solar -

which the country is abundant with, and for more public participation in the drafting of a national energy plan. While there have been success stories in the fight against highly polluting power plants and Pinoy Kontra Coal expects more, they also expect the road ahead to be tough going.

For, while government has ostensibly committed itself to shifting its priority to increasing the percentage of renewable energy in its energy mix, engineer Silverio Navarro Jr., a consultant of the Green Renewable Independent Power Producers (GRIPP) project, which is engaged in efforts to set up renewable energy projects in Negros, said the reality is that the government's energy program continues and will continue to tilt towards coal and other fossil fuels.

Which is why Pinoy Kontra Coal also intends to lobby with international financing institutions to withhold financing to coal and other fuel-based energy projects

and redirect this to renewable energy initiatives.

But as Delvy Balasbas, chairman of COALFREE, said: "We have no choice. We have to wage this fight because failure is not an option." In the case of Thailand, the coming fight could even be bloodier.

For, in January next year, the Thai government is hosting the Coaltrans Thailand conference to discuss "improving the use and efficiency of coal and lignite in power generation, reducing emissions from coal and lignite through latest power plant technologies," and developing independent power producers and "fuel selection issues." The venue? The Mae Moh mine.

Yet, according to Nakwirot, "We will continue to fight. If we don't fight, we die anyway. Better to die fighting."

* Jaime Espina is a writer for Today newspaper in the Philippines.