Township takes on military sulphur factory
A township committee has refused to renew the operating licence for a military-owned acid factory that serves the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region and has reportedly damaged villagers’ health.
A TOWNSHIP committee has refused to renew the operating licence for a military conglomerate-owned acid factory that civil society groups say is damaging local villagers’ health. But regional officials are unsure whether this will be enough to stop the plant operating.
The factory was built “dangerously close” to Kankone village in Sagaing Region’s Salingyi township, where residents have long reported respiratory, skin and eye problems because of factory emissions, an Amnesty International report released yesterday said.
Military conglomerate Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (UMEHL) built the Moe Gyo Sulphuric Acid Factory in 2007 to serve two copper mines – Letpadaung and the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung mine. UMEHL operates these in partnership with Chinese firm Wanbao Mining Company.
In May, a factory representative approached U Ko Ko Naing, the recently elected chair of the new Salingyi township development committee, and asked him to renew the factory’s licence, U Ko Ko Naing told The Myanmar Times.
The township committee extension requires a raft of documentation including environmental and health certification from village officials, which were not forthcoming, he said. The factory representative approached U Ko Ko Naing at the beginning and again at the end of May, but was refused the extension on both occasions, he added.
U Ko Ko Naing did not comment on why certification was not given, but local resident U Aung Soe said local officials had refused to give their approval. The village is constantly fighting pollution from the factory, which had recently forced a local school to close, he added.
Villagers have railed against the factory and the Letpadaung mine for years through often bloody protests – in an infamous response to a 2012 demonstration police used white phosphorous that left many protesters with burns.
The mine restarted operations on May 5 to widespread protests from villagers, who demanded that the conclusions of a 2013 parliamentary inquiry – recommending the project continue only with better transparency and an environmental impact plan – be formally adopted.
Sagaing Region MP U Thein Naing said he was aware that U Ko Ko Naing had not extended the factory’s licence, but was unsure of what the outcome would be. Municipal law requires township committee approval for the operating licence, but the authorities would likely take into account both the “foreign investment situation” as well as local law, he said.
The factory is operating with permission from the Ministry of Industry under an initial three-year test run, which expires in October, U Ko Ko Naing said. UMEHL only obtained permission to operate the factory in 2013, after the parliamentary inquiry led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi found that it had been built without permission from local authorities, according to Amnesty International.
A local official told Amnesty International that the Directorate of Industrial Supervision and Inspection – a body under the Ministry of Industry – was allowing the factory to run, even though it lacked a licence from the township committee.
U Than Htay, a spokesperson for Sagaing Region Chief Minister U Than Htay, said the Sagaing government would like to relocate the factory away from the village, but that it had no power to either stop it operating or relocate the plant.
That was a decision for the Union government, he said, because the licence to operate the factory had been granted by the then-Ministry of Mines – now the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.
U Win Htein, director general of the Department of Mines, told The Myanmar Times that the permit to build the factory had been granted by the Ministry of Industry. But he suggested the factory’s operations are covered by the licence it has to operate the Letpadaung mine.
U Win Htein added that the Sagaing Region government has the power to stop the factory on environmental grounds, but that it would need to collect detailed evidence from qualified environmentalists and submit the request to the government.
Amnesty International business and human rights researcher Mark Dummett, who visited Sagaing in June, said the township council has been in touch with members of civil society group the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) and wants an environmental assessment.
A MATA spokesperson told The Myanmar Times the organisation is helping Salingyi township representatives put together a presentation on the environmental damage the factory is causing, which will be presented to the upper and lower houses of parliament later this month. Sagaing Region MP U Thein Naing said it would be difficult to prove environmental damage without the means to accurately measure air pollution.
A UMEHL spokesperson said yesterday he did not have time to comment, while Wanbao could not immediately be reached for comment.
An aerial view of Kankone village and the nearby acid factory.