Eight years after a gold mine opened in Loei’s Wang Saphung district, people there continue to have grave concerns about the health and environmental threats posed by its operation. A prominent academic, meanwhile, has said that efforts to address these issues have only been partly successful.
For years, residents from the six villages in Tambon Khao Luang have joined together to spearhead the Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group, an anti-mining collective, to protest against Thung Kham Ltd Co’s mining and mineral surveying in the area. They claim that the company’s activities create pollution and destroy ecosystems.
They allege that they can no longer eat home-grown produce and need to buy drinking water due to environmental damage wreaked by mining.
With plentiful minerals, the northeast province of Loei has caught the attention of a host of investors looking to capitalise on its rich resources. This has led to disputes and even violence. In the latest disturbance on May 15, protesting residents claimed they were attacked by more than 100 armed and masked men. They say they are now living in fear due to the incident.
Khan Jutano, 56, said her husband Suwat, 61, used to be a strong farmer who could single-handedly build a house. “We ate rice that we grew ourselves, ate local fish and drank creek water,” she said, adding that such lifestyle continued after the mine existed until Suwat got sick, reportedly from cyanide contamination. “He developed muscle pain in 2007 and a Muang Loei Hospital doctor said it was a nerve disease,” she added.
Blood tests conducted by the provincial health office on residents near the mine found that Suwat’s blood contained 0.55 microgram/milligram of cyanide, well beyond a safe level of 0.2 microgram. By 2013, Suwat had leg muscle atrophy and was unable to walk. Fortunately their rubber-taper son supported them. “Or else we would starve because everything needs to be bought, including drinking water,” Khan said.
Animals dying mysteriously
Ban Kok Sathon resident Pan Kaengjampa, 80, had dozens of beautiful silk skirts to remind her of her glorious past as the village’s best weaver.
Now she can’t walk since her body weakened in 2012 as an alleged consequence of cyanide contamination. The villagers believe that cyanide leaked from a disposal pool into a natural creek from which villagers drank and caught fish, crabs or clams for meal.
“The doctor told me I had a nerve disease, but refused to write it down,” said Pan. “I personally believe the minerals contributed to my symptoms.”
In 2007 local residents started to complain of rashes, eye irritation and chest tightness.
Two years later, Loei health office warned residents not to use water from Huai Phuk, Huai Lhek or underground water due to heavy metal contamination.
Blood tests conducted in 2010 showed that residents in six villages around the mine had high levels of cyanide, lead and mercury in their blood while fish, chicken and dogs kept dying mysteriously. In 2012, at least three people – including Pan – had symptoms of muscle weakness, atrophy, and nerve disorder.
There were also adverse affects to farming. Liang Phromsopa, 61, a farmer, claimed that 30-40 sacks of rice were once harvested from each rice field compared to the current total of nine sacks per field.
Chulalongkorn University social academic Somporn Pengkham said water quality tests started finding cyanide in the creek water after the mine began operating. In 2006, the situation worsened with the soil found to be contaminated by chemicals and the discovery of cyanide, manganese and arsenic in the water. A team assigned by the provincial governor to investigate the issue could not decide what to do with the cyanide. Although some residents were by now being found to have these potentially lethal contaminants in their blood, the absence of a systematic approach to tackling the problem by state agencies meant that the problem remains.
While refraining from saying that the cyanide came from the mine, Somporn said that it was essential that the facility should be studied. “What is important is that the villagers are sick,” she said. “Therefore authorities must step in and take care of the people.”
Somporn also urged people in Loei not to ignore the issue. She reminded them that creeks such as Huai Lhek, Huai Din Dam and Huai Liang Kwai eventually reached the Loei and Mekong rivers. Therefore it was quite possible that cyanide and heavy metal contamination might have already moved beyond the six villages.
Although the mine is now closed, pollution and sickness – for which the authorities have not held anyone responsible – may remain for a long time and require a lot of tax money to fix.
Somporn concluded by saying that solutions to tackling the after effects of contamination would remain elusive as long as state agencies remain indifferent to the issue.