Chatree gold mine prompts protests in Thailand after poisoning claimsPublished by MAC on 2016-04-29
Source: ABC, AAP, Mining Weekly (2016-04-28)
Residents say open-cut operation is affecting people, crops and livestock
The Chatree mine is located 280 kilometres north of Bangkok and is the country's only major gold mine. A study overseen by Thailand's Ministry of Public Health last year tested 1,004 people living near the mine and found 41 per cent had manganese levels '"above the standard".
For its part, consulting firm Behre Dollbere International - in a report commissioned by the government - recently concluded the mine had not contaminated the surrounding area with cyanide and heavy metals.
Australian company Kingsgate Consolidated owns 48 per cent of the mine.
For previous article on MAC, see: Thai gold mine, said to have poisoned locals, allowed to reopen
Australian part-owned Chatree gold mine prompts protests in Thailand after poisoning claims
Residents say open-cut mine is poisoning people, crops and livestock.
28 April 2016
It has all the hallmarks of a classic Western — farmers in cowboy boots fighting against a big gold mine, led by a gruff-talking Australian boss, in the dusty heartland of Thailand.
But the struggle over the Chatree mine and its impacts on local health really comes down to a lack of clarity in Thailand over what levels of naturally occurring toxic substances are considered safe.
Australian company Kingsgate Consolidated owns 48 per cent of the mine.
Chairman Ross Smyth-Kirk said he was frustrated the debate over alleged contamination could hamper the company's efforts to extend their mining license, which expires next month.
"Not only has nobody died, nobody has even been sick or shown any symptoms of anything and yet we still go on with this giant farce," Mr Smyth-Kirk said.
"If the stupidity of these people [protesting] was to come to light, it would have amazing economic ramifications for this area."
A recent visit by four government ministers to the site drew about 3,500 supporters and at a separate event, about 500 protesters turned out.
Opponents said the mine had poisoned local residents, crops and livestock.
"We're not against development but we can't trade development for people's lives, for sickness and suffering," campaigner Suekanya Sintornthammathat — the last resident left in Ban Khao Mor, the village closest to the mine's boundary, said.
One protester at the ministers' meeting held a placard saying "Get Out Australia Capitalists", while a small girl clutched a handwritten sign showing her levels of arsenic, manganese and cyanide.
The levels of heavy metals have been used by both sides to push their very different agendas.
Gold at what cost?
The Chatree mine is located 280 kilometres north of Bangkok and is the country's only major gold mine, employing 1,000 Thai staff.
It is a low-grade, open-cut operation, meaning its operators blast rock from a huge mine pit and use cyanide to extract the fine gold particles from the rubble.
The company's use of cyanide is considered world standard and tests have shown no problems with the level of cyanide in the bodies of staff or locals.
What has been more contentious is the manganese and arsenic — both substances that can cause serious health problems such as Parkinson's disease and various cancers.
Manganese and arsenic occur naturally in the soil around the mine.
The allegation from opponents is that the mine's blasting and transportation of rocks is increasing the amount of these toxins in the dust and water.
Battle of the blood tests over poisoning claims
A study overseen by Thailand's Ministry of Public Health last year tested 1,004 people living near the mine and found 41 per cent had manganese levels '"above the standard".
About 20 per cent had levels of arsenic "above the standard".
The problem is there has been no clear "standard" for safe levels of exposure for these substances in Thailand.
The Public Health Ministry study used the range of 4-15 micro-grams (ug) of manganese per litre of blood and 0-50 ug of arsenic per litre of urine, as benchmarks for what is normal.
By comparison, Safe Work Australia is more generous, saying arsenic levels below 100 ug/L are considered normal, with readings above 150 considered "excessive exposure".
Akara Resources and its major shareholder Kingsgate has not denied the existence of elevated levels of manganese and arsenic, but said the exposure was normal and could not necessarily be linked to the mine.
"The slightly elevated levels of arsenic and other things are only slightly [up], none of them are earth-shattering, none of them are a problem," Mr Smyth-Kirk said.
The mine has also done its own health tests on staff and the community up to 50 kilometres away.
The most recent results show about 14 per cent of local residents had arsenic levels about 50 ug/L.
More concerning are the results that show 70-80 per cent of those tested had manganese levels above 10 ug/L — the level considered by Akara Resources to be "normal".
Company management told the ABC anyone with high readings was invited for further medical checks at the company's expense.
Last year Thailand's Ministry of Industry asked for a major review of community impacts, which was done by the international mining industry consultants Behre Dolbear and paid for by the mine.
It found "low arsenic/manganese impact" and overall "no negative impact" to community health.
Arsenic impacts not well understood
In terms of arsenic two complicating factors have been raised.
One is that some foods — particularly seafood and rice — are high in arsenic and can cause short-lived spikes in test results.
The other is that arsenic comes in two forms — organic arsenic is found naturally in food and is considered not very toxic, but inorganic arsenic is what is in the soil and is thought to be much more dangerous.
A test to isolate which sort of arsenic is in the urine test is more expensive (about $80 a sample) and is not being conducted by either side.
This means it is difficult to tell how much arsenic is coming from the local diet and how much might be coming from the mine.
The issue is complicated and not well understood in the community.
One former subcontractor at the mine complained of extreme lethargy and showed the ABC bruises on his torso that he said was evidence of arsenic poisoning.
He could not remember the name of the doctor in Bangkok who told him he had arsenic poisoning.
The man referred the ABC to another doctor occasionally employed by the mine to collect specimens, but she said the bruising was an unrelated skin problem and his lethargy was cause by thyroid issues.
Campaigners claim up to 500 people have become sick and dozens have died, but did not provide evidence linking ill health to the mine.
Mining could continue for another two decades
The claims come as the mine's future hangs in the balance.
On May 13, the company's metallurgical license expires and operations could be stopped.
Thailand's military government is under considerable pressure in Bangkok over its plans to limit democratic systems and wants to be seen to care about the concerns of its citizens in the countryside.
"We came to listen to everyone," Thailand's Public Health Minister Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn said as he fronted protesters.
"You complain that it's taking a long time but this decision must happen in one or two months from now, I guarantee it."
Mr Smyth-Kirk has tired to shrug off the impending decision.
"It's critical but it shouldn't be a major problem," he said.
Mr Smyth-Kirk said the mine had about seven years of production life left, but that the approval of other exploration permits could see operations continue for two decades.
Many local residents the ABC spoke to supported the mine for the economic opportunities it has brought.
"Since the beginning, when they started clearing the jungle, my three sons have been working with them," resident Khampan Lue-aye said.
"There are no health problems, it's all normal — when people are sick, the mine helps them."
But farmers opposing the mine are digging in their heels — backed by some academics and non-government groups in Bangkok — so it's likely the controversy will continue over the community impacts of gold mining in Thailand.
Kingsgate chairman denies pollution charges at Thai goldmine
AAP - http://www.smh.com.au/
28 April 2016
Senior executives of Australian goldminer Kingsgate Consolidated Ltd are strenuously defending the company's environmental record at its Thai operations against claims of polluting the local community.
Kingsgate's Thai offshoot, Akara Resources, oversees Thailand's largest goldmine at Chatree, 280 kilometres north of Bangkok.
The mine employs more than 1100 people, producing 130,000 ounces of gold and 1 million tonnes of silver annually.
The mine has faced charges from local activists and academics of polluting local communities' water supplies, leading to elevated blood levels of arsenic and manganese in the local population.
But Kingsgate chairman Ross Smyth-Kirk denied the charges, calling them "lies and rubbish".
"We've got the highest regard for health and environmental safety - all of these aspects and the community relationship; and we've done that from day one," Smyth-Kirk told AAP.
"This is the showcase mine of south-east Asia and to see the legacy that we've built up trashed by all these lies and rubbish that's going on.
"There has never been anybody that can even show that there's been any sickness at all," he said.
"There's no one that shows any symptoms - and there's certainly nobody who has died and yet [activists] keep making these claims after claim - and the bigger and more outrageous things that they say, the more willing is the press to print it," he said.
But high profile Thai academics and human rights groups have raised doubts over the mine, opposing the renewal of Akara Resources' goldmining licence and plans to open new mining activities.
Child rights protection groups claim children living in the area have reported poisoning from metals, such as arsenic - which is also used in gold processing operations - and manganese.
Thailand's Industry Ministry is assessing whether to extend Akara Resources' metallurgy licence, with a decision due on May 13.
Consulting firm Behre Dollbere International, in a report commissioned by the government, recently concluded the mine had not contaminated the surrounding area with cyanide and heavy metals.
A senior delegation of Thai government ministers from Industry, Public Health and Science as well as senior officials travelled to the area last weekend to inspect the mine.
Industry Minister Atchara Sibumruong told local media the ministry had received data "from every side, some of which is in total conflict with the other".
"The department will judge every aspect concerning the wellbeing of the people, environmental safety, the economic worthiness and social impacts to nearby communities," she said.
Smyth-Kirk said Kingsgate was seeking to extend the area under mining with the existing operation's productive life of about seven years.
"There's quite extensive areas that are adjoining it and we're to get some of the exploration licences there, so it could be still mining for the next 20 to 30 years," he said.
Without further permits, "then we'll have to look at putting off people ... and that will be a serious economic problem in that area", he said.
Kingsgate Consolidated is due to release its quarterly reports to the Australian Stock Exchange on Thursday.
Kingsgate production tumbles
28 April 2016
Gold production from ASX-listed Kingsgate Consolidated declined significantly for the three months ended March 31, compared with the previous quarter, as the miner faced difficult conditions.
Kingsgate on Thursday reported that group gold production for the three months to March 31 reached 32 472 oz, compared with the 47 307 oz produced in the previous quarter.
The Chatree mine, in Thailand, produced only 23 053 oz of gold during the quarter under review, compared with the 28 257 oz produced in the previous quarter. The decrease in gold production was attributed to fleet availability issues and reduced access to higher-grade ore as the project faced permitting delays.