Stifling, dirty and dangerous, air pollution from traffic is one of the biggest headaches for Bangkok people, but most endure it even as they complain bitterly about it.
A public bus emits black fumes while stuck in a jam in Bangkok traffic in this file photo. A group of Bangkok citizens took city bus operators to court 10 years ago, and a final ruling is expected soon. AFP
With few options available to get the authorities to take action, three Bangkok citizens decided enough was enough and took the issue to court a decade ago.
Pok Saejia, Tawee Thongdo and Ladda Tisanond live in roadside communities in Lat Phrao and Klong Toey districts, where many residents report health problems from air pollution.
In 2002, the three filed lawsuits with the Central Administrative Court against the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) - the city's bus operator - and the Pollution Control Department (PCD) for failing to tackle the foul black smoke emitted by city buses.
Environmental groups - the Foundation Against Air Pollution and for the Protection of the Environment and the Stop Global Warming Association - filed similar lawsuits against the agencies.
The court ruled in 2006 that the BMTA was guilty of failing to provide acceptable public buses. The court ordered the bus operator to improve engine maintenance across its fleet and report the results of emission tests every three months for the next year.
In its 2006 ruling, the court cleared the PCD of charges that it failed adequately to deal with the pollution case.
The BMTA appealed against the 2006 decision. The foundation also appealed, contesting the ruling that cleared the pollution department.
After six years of deliberating, the Supreme Administrative Court's Commissaire du Gouvernement on Tuesday recommended to the court's judges panel that the lower court ruling be upheld.
He said the BMTA was strictly bound in its duty to provide a quality service to the public by providing buses in good condition.
Any bus that emits excessive air pollution must be banned from public service, he said, adding that the BMTA operates more than 14,700 buses, but has only 33 pollution inspection machines, not nearly enough to properly test all of its vehicles.
After hearing the Commissaire du Gouvernement's opinion, the judges' panel will hand down a ruling in the case, which is expected to come soon.
Srisuwan Janya, president of the Stop Global Warming Association, one of the plaintiffs, said the Supreme Administrative Court's ruling in this case will set a precedent for future pollution cases.
No matter what the ruling, Mr Srisuwan said he was considering filing a complaint with the Land Transport Department, which supervises the Transport Company to ask it to conduct stricter inspections of inter-provincial buses as well.
BMTA director Opas Phetmunee said his agency has tried its best to curb pollution from city buses.
Mr Opas said the BMTA has asked operators of joint private-public buses to improve engine maintenance as a pre-condition for the renewal of operating licences.
The BMTA also replaced its old buses with Euro II buses, which are more environmentally-friendly.
Now, the emissions of black fumes have been sharply reduced since 2002, he said, adding that he was willing to comply with the court's ruling.
Land Transport Department deputy chief Asdsathai Rattanadilok Na Phuket insisted the department strictly enforces the regulation to have the engines of all types of public buses checked every six months.
As public buses clock up more miles than ordinary vehicles, some operators might ignore engine checks, he said.
To solve this problem, the department sends teams of officials to join pollution control and police officers to randomly conduct engine checks of public buses, he said.
"Now, public buses emitting harmful black fumes as in the past are seldom seen as engines have been improved and they run on natural gas. The emissions problem has been significantly reduced," Mr Asdsathai said.
"However, some old buses might still be creating a problem and the BMTA will strictly check their engines," he said.
Transport Co managing director Wutthichart Kalayanamitr said only a small number of inter-provincial buses operated by his agency emit black smoke and they were mostly old ones.
His agency is focusing on maintenance and engine checks of those buses to solve the emissions problem.
Wanida Jinsart, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's environmental science department, supported the citizens' move to protect their right to live in a clean environment.
Growing environmental awareness among city residents and agencies concerned has resulted in better air quality, she said.
"Bangkok's air quality is improving. The adoption of Euro IV emission standards has also led to the reduction of small dust particles in the city," she said.
"However, we can't deal with the air pollution problem from only one angle. We need to do it holistically."
Apart from pollution from city buses, there should be stricter controls on emissions of black smoke from private cars, better traffic management, and tax incentives for eco-friendly vehicles such as hybrid cars.
Ms Wanida said black smoke from public buses is considered a small part of the traffic air pollution problem. Studies have shown that private cars are the major cause of air pollution in the cities.
Therefore, there should be stricter law enforcement of private car owners.
According to a PCD study in 2006, 91% of the black smoke in Bangkok came from private cars, followed by joint private-public buses and BMTA buses.
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Writer: Amornrat Mahitthirook and Apinya Wipatayotin