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.

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - STEVE GIL­MORE s.gil­more@mm­ KHIN SU WAI khin­suwai@mm­ CHAN MYA HTWE chan­myahtwe@mm­

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.


Photo: Sup­plied

An aerial view of Kankone vil­lage and the nearby acid fac­tory.

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