MAC: Mines and Communities

The Poisoned Village

Published by MAC on 2006-01-20

The Poisoned Village

by Sabrina Gyorvary / The Irrawaddy

20th January 2006

Karen community seeks justice in a Thailand pollution scandal

The road to Lower Klity winds through the high mountain passes of Thailand's Kanchanaburi province. It's a picturesque route, even in winter-when a soft, cold mist shrouds the countryside and chills a traveller to the bone.

At one point of the road, a grassy turn-off leads to an old lead mine, and there the horror begins. The mine was closed seven years ago on the orders of Thailand's Department of Mineral Resources, and its idle installations and machinery lie rusting in the foul-smelling air. It's a bleak introduction to the village of Lower Klity, blighted by the lead pollution spewed out by the mine from the early 1980s until the late 1990s.

The 350 people of Lower Klity are ethnic Karen, granted Thai citizenship, and victims of a pollution scandal that is only now coming fully to light-thanks in great measure to the efforts of the Lawyers Council of Thailand. I joined a team of the Society's lawyers on a journey to the remote village and saw at first-hand the damage wrought by years of unchecked pollution. It wasn't a pretty sight.

The sad story starts more than 20 years ago, when a mining company, Lead Concentrate Thailand, set up operations near Klity. The company released waste from its lead separation plant directly into Klity Creek, which supplies the community with water. Soon, villagers were complaining of severe headaches, swellings and pains in their joints. Hundreds of cattle died, wiping out the villagers' savings.

It wasn't until April 1998 that the people of Klity drew outside attention to their plight, writing a letter of complaint to the director of Thailand's Pollution Control Department. Inspectors were sent to test Klity Creek, and found that the lead contamination was far higher than any previously registered in Thailand. The creek's sediment contained as much as 33,491 mg/kg of lead, 3,000 times higher than the 11mg/kg safety level. The lead content in the water was 0.55 mg/liter, against the PCD's standard of only 0.05 mg/liter. According to the PCD, fish caught in Klity Creek and the nearby Sri Nakarin reservoir contained 47.6 and 90.5 mg/kg of lead respectively. The PCD's standard for lead allowed in fish is 1 mg/kg, while the US Environmental Protection Agency's is 0.26 mg/kg.

The Department of Mineral Resources fined Lead Concentrate Thailand 2,000 baht (US $50) and ordered the company to suspend its operations until it had cleaned up the stream and could show it had improved waste management procedures.

One year later, the PCD inspected the site and found that the company had merely dug up the sediment and piled it along the banks of the stream, despite instructions to bury it. Recent research by Thailand's Rangsit University shows that the lead content of the soil in Klity Creek is as high as it ever was.

The PCD also built a dam to prevent additional lead from passing into the creek. When we arrived at the site, however, raging water in the rainy season was washing unobstructed over the top of the dam. Lead contamination in the soil around the dam still remains high, ranging from 31,206 to 45,150 mg/kg. Drinking water is now piped into the village from nearby mountains, but the 0.02-0.03 mg/liter lead content of the water still exceeds the World Health Organization standard of 0.01. Villagers continue to rely on contaminated Klity Creek water when working in their fields for extended periods of time, away from safe water sources.

The effects on the villagers' health are dramatic. Tests by Thailand's Department of Health in February 1999 found dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, ranging from four to five times higher than the 4.9 micrograms per decilitre in the average Thai adult, and most showed outward symptoms of lead poisoning. As damage progressed in victims' nervous systems and brain cells, more and more Klity children were born mentally and physically disabled. At least eight villagers are thought to have died as a result of lead poisoning, and more than 30 women have miscarried.

From October 6, 2000 to January 31, 2001, officials from Thailand's Department of Medical Services collected blood samples from 30 Klity children. The results of these tests were never made known to their parents, and no mention of lead poisoning was made by the Department. A citizens' network formed to address the lead poisoning problem wrote a formal letter to the head of the Ministry of Public Health requesting access to the blood test results, but received no response.

Limited supplies of medicine were issued to the parents of the children, but adults-including pregnant women-were not treated. Many of the children had allergic reactions to the prescribed drugs. The director of the Ministry of Public Health's Environmental Health Division was quoted in 1999 as saying the villagers "looked normal," and that the cause of their illness was undetermined, suggesting possible kidney disease, diabetes, or bacterial infection.

Finally, in December 2000, eight villagers, including four children, took matters into their own hands and made the long journey to Bangkok, where they saw a specialist, Dr Orapan Methadilokkul, at Rachavithi Hospital. After finally receiving proper medical treatment, all eight villagers recovered from their illness. Orphan also issued papers certifying that they had indeed suffered from lead poisoning, an important step in accessing appropriate treatment and prosecuting those responsible.

The Lawyers Council of Thailand is now in the process of filing a 120 million baht ($3 million) civil suit with the Kanchanaburi court on behalf of the villagers, accusing Lead Concentrate Thailand of releasing untreated discharge into the Klity community's sole water source over the course of three decades. The company is accused of violating the Constitution, the 1992 Environmental Protection Act, the 1967 Mineral Act, and the 1992 Factory Act. Community leader Yaser Nasuansuwan was the first to bring the lawsuit against the company, after his daughter's body swelled up painfully and she died at the age of 12.

The suit originally named Lead Concentrate managing director and former Democrat MP Kongsak Kleeb-bua, as the second defendant, but encountered delays after Kongsak died in September 2003. The provincial court of Kanchanaburi began hearing the case in August 2005. At the outset of the hearing, a former Lead Concentrate Thailand engineer told the court that the company had indeed discharged toxic waste into Klity Creek, and at the same time, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Yongyuth Tiyapairat asked Klity villagers to drop their case against the Pollution Control Department.

As the case inches its way through the court system, heavy rains have caused the embankments of a sediment pond to collapse at the Kleeb-bua family's Kanchanaburi Exploration and Mining Company (Kemco) mine, 20km from Klity Creek, resulting in the overflow of additional lead-tainted water and sediment into the area's natural water sources.

After our arrival in Lower Klity village, lawyers from the Lawyers Council of Thailand set up shop on the floor of the local temple, interviewing lead poison victims. I sat next to Ma Ong Seng, blinded by nerve damage. Her two young sons, both mentally handicapped, had led her by the hands up the temple steps, carefully removing her shoes, and sat watching me protectively as I spoke to their mother. Next to us, little Tukada, whom I'd read about in the papers as a one-year-old who could not lift her head, sat staring blankly. Now five years old, she weighs only 11 kg, her head large for her tiny body.

Families gathered in groups around each of the lawyers with photocopies of ID cards, birth certificates, medical records documenting the amount of lead in the children's blood, and receipts for medical and travel expenses incurred over the years folded carefully into plastic bags, safe from the mud and rain. Young people struggled to translate from Karen to Thai for their parents as the lawyers patiently recorded the details of each case. By the end of the weekend, over 80 villagers had added their stories to the growing lawsuit against the mining company.

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