How Klong Dan project gushed from pollution solution to corruption torrent to expensive lesson
The controversial Klong Dan wastewater treatment project has made headlines at regular intervals over the past three decades. News reports initially described the plant as a solution to water pollution, then the “mother of all corruption cases”, and now an expensive lesson.
The government has poured more than 20 billion baht into the Klong Dan project – which has never gone into operation – and will now be required to pay nearly 30 billion baht more to constructor NVPSKG in what has been described as a “stupidity fee”.
Senior political-office holders and civil servants have been convicted of wrongdoing in relation to the project, as have NVPSKG executives.
Long and murky history
After Samut Prakan was declared a pollution-control zone in 1994, Suwat Liptapanlop – then the science, technology and environment minister – pushed hard to launch a large wastewater treatment project in the riverside province. But before his initiative could win approval, the House was dissolved for a general election.
So, it was under the tenure of Suwat’s successor, Yingphan Manasikan, that the water-treatment scheme finally won the Cabinet’s green light.
The project’s initial design featured wastewater treatment systems on both sides of the Chao Phraya River – one in Bang Pu Mai and the other around Klong Bang Pla Kod. But in a surprise twist, only one plant ended up being constructed, on a spot in Klong Dan subdistrict. The cost of the project also soared from the initial budget of 13.6 billion baht to 23 billion baht.
Irregularities involving powerful figures
Vatana Asavahame, an influential figure and powerful politician in Samut Prakan, was heavily involved in the initial stages of the project. Vatana was a former deputy interior minister as well as a veteran of several other high-ranking positions.
In 2008, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders found Vatana guilty of abusing his authority in coercing land officials to issue land-title deeds for public plots that were sold to the Klong Dan project at an inflated price.
Vatana was slapped with a 10-year jail term in absentia after fleeing overseas. He remains a fugitive from justice.
Also finding themselves in serious legal trouble were Pakit Kirawanich, former director of the Pollution Control Department (PCD), Sirithan Pairojpiboon, his former deputy, and Yuwaree Inna, who had headed PCD’s Water Management Division. The court of first instance convicted them, but the charges were dropped on appeal. Their case is now with the Supreme Court but the final ruling has yet to be issued.
Constructor fights for money as execs jailed
NVPSKG executives were also convicted of fraud related to land-title deeds in 2008 by a final court ruling. They were slapped with fines and jail terms ranging between three and six years.
However, their conviction did not strip NVPSKG of the right to demand payment for work done on the project, which was 95 percent complete at the time of its cancellation in 2003. By that time, NVPSKG had already received more than 20 billion baht in government money for wages.
NVPSKG petitioned the arbitration committee, which in 2011 ruled that PCD must pay the pending wage bill of more than 9 billion baht plus interest at 7.5 percent a year.
PCD refused to comply with the ruling on grounds that the constructor’s executives were also engaged in foul play. It has petitioned the administrative court. However, the Supreme Administrative Court ordered it to comply with the arbitration committee’s ruling on March 7 this year.
Massive ‘stupidity fee’
Given that the PCD battled in court for more than a decade after the arbitration committee issued its ruling, the department and Finance Ministry will now have to pay the 9 billion baht compensation but also a huge interest bill.
While PCD has the legal right to demand compensation from those convicted of corruption in the Klong Dan case, there is little chance of it retrieving a large sum of money.
In 2020, the Central Administrative Court ruled that the former top PCD executives must pay more than Bt10 billion in compensation to PCD. No payment has yet been made.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk