Irrawaddy Division Residents Concerned After Officials Discuss Coal Plant

By Salai Thant Zin 16 September 2014

NGA YOKE KAUNG TOWNSHIP —Irrawaddy Division officials and a Burmese construction company met with residents of villages in Nga Yoke Kaung Township last weekend to inform of them of a plan to build a 300-megawatt coal-firedpower plant in the coastal region.

They ensured the local population that they would not be negatively affected by the environmental impacts of the proposed plant, which they said would be funded by Japanese firms and overseas development bank loans.

“We guarantee 100 percent that the power plant that we are building together with a Japanese company doesn’t cause any harm to people, animals andenvironment, as it utilizes advanced technologies,”said Yan Win,chairman of A1 Group of Companies, a Burmese conglomerate.

“We have studied coal-fired power plants in Japan and found that they
are built in town centers and in residential areas. We decided to work with [Japanese] partners only after we studied [coal plant designs] and were sure they are safe,” hetold hundreds of villagers who had gathered at Dhammi Kayone Monastery in Nga Yoke Kaung Sub-township on Saturday.

Irrawaddy Division’s Electricity and Industry Minister Saw Mya Thein said local residents would benefit from the project as it would provide electricity for the roughly 35,000 people in Nga Yoke Kaung Sub-township, adding that it would also provide much-needed power to Maubin, Myaungmya and Pathein industrial zones, and millions of villagers in Irrawaddy Delta.

The announcements by the businessman and senior Irrawaddy Division officials were met with skepticism by local villagers and activists, however.

“Can they guarantee that it is not harmfulto people and environment? Because we won’t be able ask them to closedown the power plant after it is built and we find that it is hazardous to our health,” said Aung Than, a resident of Kywegyaing village who attended the meeting.

“The major problem is that we dare not trust them. That’s why we do
not agree with the project,” he said, adding, that he believed that “the fumes and ash from coal can be hazardous.”

Myint Aung, an activist of the environmental group BeautifulLand, said he believed that the coal plant would have a heavy environmental impact on the coastal region.

“No matter what technology is used,coal does produce arsenic and mercury when burned. Therefore, the placeis bound to suffer sooner or later,” he said. “If there are 50 arsenic particles in one million particles of water,one in 100 people who drink that water can get cancer,” Myint Aung claimed.

Large investment projects in Burma are regularly accompanied by heavy social and environmental impacts on local communities, such asforced land confiscation without fair compensation. Authorities often side with the well-connected companies in any disputes that arise from suchproject impacts.

A1 Company Chairman Yan Win said the coal plant would be part of a deep sea port located in Nga Yoke Kaung Bay, adding that the plant would be built by a joint venture involving the Ministry of Electrical Power, A1 Company and a consortium of Japanese firms.

Yan Win said his company had yet to choose a site for the plant, adding that this would be done after social and environmental impact assessment for the project were completed in consultation with local communities. He said farmers would receive fair compensation in case of any land confiscation.

It is unclear whether work has started on social and environmental impact assessments for the project.

Between 100 and 200 acres of land are reportedly required for the plant’s construction and local residents said they feared that their farmlands would be forcibly confiscated.

Yan Win claimed that financing for the project would be provided by A1 Company and the Japanese firms, adding that the latter would take out loansfrom the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

The meeting on Saturday provided scant detail about the unnamedJapanese firms involved. A search on the websites of the international development banks found no reference to the coal plant project in Nga Yoke Kaung Township.

Last year, media reports said that Singaporean consultant Super Axis Development Pte Ltd had signed a memorandum of understanding with the government to conduct a feasibility study for the Nga Yoke Kaung deep sea port. The study would reportedly include assessments of the environmental, social and economic impacts of the project.

Burma’s reformist government has been keen to attract foreign investment to set up large industrial zones, such as deep sea ports and special economic zones (SEZ), in order to boost the country’s economic growth. Italso wants to build hydropower dams andcoal- and gas-fired power plants in order to meet Burma’s fast-growing energy needs.

However, many of the high-profile mega-projects, such as the Thailand-backed Dawei SEZ in Tenasserim Division or Japan’s Thilawa SEZ near Rangoon, have been dogged by complaints of land-grabbing or have suffered from a lack of foreign funding.