Lead contamination victims win historic B4m payout

The Supreme Administrative Court Thursday ordered the Pollution Control Department (PCD) to pay nearly 4 million baht in compensation to 22 Karen villagers over lead contamination at Klity Creek.

Twenty-two ethnic Karen villagers affected by lead contamination in lower Klity Creek in Kanchanaburi’s Thong Pha Phum district celebrate their victory in a nine-year court battle against the Pollution Control Department at the Supreme Administrative Court yesterday. They also carry pictures of children suffering from lead poisoning in their village. TAWATCHAI KEMGUMNERD

The verdict ended a nine-year legal battle between the PCD and the locals, with no more avenues of appeal available.

Klity Creek, in Kanchanaburi's Thong Pha Phum district, was contaminated by water illegally discharged from a nearby lead factory operated by Lead Concentrate Co. The Department of Mineral Resources ordered the closure of the company in 1998, the same year the lead contamination was exposed.

The Central Administrative Court ruled in 2008 that the PCD was guilty of negligence for being too slow to clean up the lead-contaminated creek. The court ordered the department to pay compensation of 33,783 baht to each of the 22 victims, a total of 743,226 baht.

Both sides appealed against the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court.

The court Thursday upheld the lower court's ruling that the PCD was guilty of negligence for its slow clean-up operation, thus depriving the 22 Karen of water for personal use and consumption.

The court, however, increased the amount of compensation to be paid to each victim to 177,199.55 baht.

The court arrived at the higher figure by increasing the food allowance to be paid by the PCD from 350 baht per month to 700 baht a month. The compensation period was also extended from three years to 11 years, from 2002 to 2012.

Villager Yaserh Nasuansuwan, right, and other Karen from the Klity Creek area listen to the Supreme Administrative Court verdict that gave them a victory, but not closure. (AP Photo)

The court also ordered the PCD to pay 1,000 baht a month for nine years, from 2004 to 2012, for the loss of opportunity for the residents to make use of natural and biological resources.

The court found that it took the PCD nine months after learning about the lead contamination to seek permission from the Royal Forest Department to rehabilitate the creek. Moreover, the PCD delayed the construction of a dyke to block lead-contaminated sediment from spreading further. The dyke was built in 2004, three years after the National Environment Board approved its construction, the court said.

The PCD's handling of the Klity Creek incident reflected the lack of a proper emergency response plan, which caused harmful pollution to spread into the environment and severely affect nearby residents, the court ruled. Affected residents were forced to buy drinking water and food as the water and aquatic animals in the creek were contaminated.

"Apart from paying compensation to residents, the PCD must act urgently to clean up the creek and bring lead levels back to acceptable levels. This includes testing lead levels in the water, creek sediment, fish and plants for at least one year and publicising the results to the locals," the court said.

Plaintiff Kamthon Srisuwanmaly, a 44-year-old Karen villager, said he was pleased with the ruling.

"We will continue to monitor the PCD's rehabilitation operation until the lead levels are back within a safe range," he said.

A lawyer representing the Klity Creek residents, Surachai Trong-ngam, of the Environmental Litigation and Advocacy for the Wants, said his group would join with academics, lawyers and Klity Creek locals to set up a committee to monitor the PCD's clean-up operation.

Speaking after the verdict was handed down, Wichien Jungrungruang, PCD director-general, said the department would seek money from the government to pay compensation to the 22 villagers.

However, he said the department would stick with its strategy of allowing the lead to dilute naturally, although lead tail piling near the creek would be removed.

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Writer: Apinya Wipatayotin
Position: Reporter