Heavy metal tragedy still playing out at Klity Creek
Karen villagers along the lead-contaminated waterway were recently awarded a cash settlement, but it can't wash away the environmental irresponsibility that has left one community member blinded and others sick and in fear for their unborn children
Ma Aung Seng's bamboo thatched-roof home has no running water, and the 50-year-old blind Karen woman has no money to buy bottled water as she can no longer work her rice fields. So when she needs water she normally asks her 16-year-old son to walk down to Klity Creek and fetch some to use for drinking, cooking and cleaning.
DRINK AND BE WARY: Klity Lang villagers still use the water in the creek although they fear it remains contaminated with lead.
But as the entire nation now knows, the water in Klity Creek has long been severely contaminated with high levels of lead, originally discharged from a factory operated by the Lead Concentrate Company. The company was ordered to close in 1998 and on Jan 10 this year the Supreme Administrative Court ordered the Pollution Control Department to pay nearly four million baht in compensation to 22 Karen villagers, ending a nine-year legal battle.
Most villagers believe the creek is still poisoned despite assurances from government agencies that the water, at least on the surface, is now drinkable.
Some like Ma Aung Seng say they have little choice but to continue using water from the creek.
''As I have no tap water, we still have to walk to the creek and scoop the water from there,'' said Ma Aung Seng in broken Thai. ''At this point, I don't think about it much,'' she said, adding that her eyesight makes it difficult to get around. If she walks to her cousin's house nearby she uses a stick to feel her way.
POISONED VISION: Ma Aung Seng’s vision blurred and faded following severe headaches and nausea.
The plight of Ma Aung Seng and other residents of Klity Lang village would probably have remained buried in the deep forest surrounding the village next to the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, the watershed of Klity Creek, if not for the legal advocates from the Karen Studies and Development Centre, as well as journalists _ some from the Bangkok Post _ who visited the area in 1998 and raised the alarm over the putrid water in the creek..
After that visit, stories of the lead contamination in Klity Creek and its horrid effects on the villagers were splashed across the front pages of newspapers and have been reported extensively in the Thai media ever since. But despite the court's monetary award to the 22 plaintiffs, it can't be said that this story has a happy ending. The people living along the creek are still struggling to survive in an environment that has changed from pristine to poisoned.
Another Karen villager, 44-year-old Ra, or Kamthorn Srisuwanmala, recounted his painful experiences. Describing himself as a normal and self-sufficient farmer before the effects of the contamination began to be felt, Ra said that in the late 1980s be began to feel sick all the time, experiencing nausea, spells of vomiting, headaches and numbness.
''I got numb all along the right side of my body,'' said Ra. He was later diagnosed as having very high levels of lead in his blood. He said that when a doctor from Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok showed him his X-ray he was flabbergasted _ he could see brown lines (lead) running along his veins and arteries.
''At that time, I wasn't aware of the cause of my illness,'' said Ra, a very thin and tanned farmer who grows corn.
Ra still remembers when the water in the creek first became murky and putrid years ago. But like other villagers he continued to use it because he had little choice. He fished in the creek and bathed in it, and even drank from it at times. The villagers began to notice large numbers of dead fish floating on the surface of the creek. Then their cows started dying.
THE HARMED: A list of villagers whose blood was checked for levels of lead in recent years. Many of the villagers were found to have levels of lead in their blood beyond 40 microgrammes per decilitre.
By then the villagers were aware that there must be a connection between the company upstream and their poisoned creek, and they tried to meet with company officials to discuss the matter. ''It was in the late 1970s that we went to see the company managers and talked to them. After that they came to install two pumps to pump groundwater for us, but it wasn't enough for the whole village,'' said Ra.
The situation deteriorated until some villagers, including Ra, began to get sick and had to be sent to hospital for treatment.
Ra was diagnosed with a severe case of lead poisoning, with the levels of the heavy metal in his blood first determined at 46 microgrammes per decilitre of blood. (Thailand hasn't established acceptable lead levels, but in some European countries the level is set at 10mcg per decilitre of blood). Ra spent over a year going back and forth between his village in the deep forest and the hospital in Bangkok to get treatment. His condition has improved, but he still has health concerns he puts down to his high exposure to lead.
''The doctor said we had chronic lead poisoning and nobody can assure us that we will fully recover,'' said Ra, who sometimes still feels pain in his joints and has nausea and headaches.
Ma Aung Seng is among the most unfortunate long-time residents of the lead-lined creek. Although lead poisoning has never officially been diagnosed as the cause of her her blindness, it is well documented that high levels of lead in the body can lead to blindness, and she, like many other villagers, has consumed water from the creek since she was a child.
She said her vision problems began one day when she was in her late thirties while harvesting rice in her family's field on a mountainside. As she was stooping down to pull up a rice plant she experienced a severe headache and a wave of nausea. She struggled to stand upright and keep her head up, but from that time her vision began to blur. She slept that night in a cottage on the rice field, and when she woke in the morning the daylight didn't bring its usual brightness.
Dirt roads link houses scattered along the banks of Klity Lang.
''Things were blurred and dark,'' said Ma Aung Seng. The headaches continued but not as severe as those on the first day.
Ma Aung Seng went to a hospital in Kanchanaburi, but the doctor there didn't offer any reason for her sudden loss of sight. He simply said her loss of vision wasn't curable.
It was not until lead contamination at Klity Creek became a major news story that she received treatment at Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok. As expected, tests showed her blood had levels of lead. By then she had become completely blind and had to ask her mother and sister to help raise her two sons. Ma Aung Seng also relies on her sister to help care for her, and on her sons who now work for a farmer in the village.
At the hospital, Ma Aung Seng heard a doctor who was treating her telling reporters that her eyesight could not be cured.
''Sometimes, I lay back and think, why me _ why am I blind? We've all used water in the creek since we were young,'' said Ma Aung Seng.
HIGH PRICE OF DEVELOPMENT
Not satisfied that the lead contamination has been removed from the creek, villagers have been trying to find new water sources. They've tried to use water from uncontaminated portions of the watershed, connecting pipes from those areas to houses in the village. But the clean water supply is not enough for all community members, especially the poorer ones like Ma Aung Seng, who don't have the money to buy a connecting pipe.
Ra said the villagers have been trying in other ways to be less dependent on water from the creek, growing less water-intensive crops like corn, and many have stopped raising cows as well.
However, growing corn is less profitable, and in a bad year it can leave them in debt.
villagers have switched from raising cattle to growing corn to avoid dependence on polluted creek water.
''Fortunately we can still grow rice,'' said Ra.
Despite the well documented health problems resulting from a failure to properly monitor the local environment, the government provides no regular medical treatment for the villagers. The only services officials from the Public Health Ministry provide are to visit the village once a year to check lead levels in their blood and conduct what villagers are told is ''health surveillance''.
This situation has frustrated many villagers, including Ra and Ma Aung Seng , who say they have no idea why they do not receive better treatment.
Most worrying is that some children in the village show signs of illness that might be related to lead poisoning. There have been a few abnormal births and signs of impaired mental development are still present.
The family of a 59-year-old man who asked not to be named said this was the case with one of his young sons. His wife was diagnosed with malaria while pregnant, but was also found to have high levels of lead in her blood. The Karen man said that for many years nobody realised that the murky creek water might be hazardous, but even then, he said, every time he went fishing in the creek he felt nauseous.
''Since the time we were told that we had lead in our blood and bodies we have lived in fear. We decided to fight the case in court because we wanted to let the public know our lives have been affected and we are in trouble. We have been sick and some of us have died.''
Ra, who is regarded as one of the leaders of the Klity Creek struggle, said: ''Our plight will be recorded as part of the country's development history. What we have experienced points to a lesson that development has its costs, costs which cannot be counted only in money invested or labour expended. The costs to the environment that provides the livelihoods of people like us, as well as our cultures, cannot be calculated easily.
''All this needs to be taken into account when we ask for development. Otherwise the adverse impacts will be great, and so will the price for rehabilitation.''
PROOF OF THE POISON: Somchart, one of 151 plaintiffs, shows a record verifying the lead levels in his blood issued by the Kanchanaburi public health office. Right, environmental advocates are concerned about the younger generation, as the creek remains contaminated.
LIVES LOST AND RUINED ON GRUELLING ROAD TO JUSTICE
In the late 1980s, livestock in Klity Lang village started dying. The causes of death were mysterious; the villagers noticed only that the water in the creek had turned murky and putrid. But it was their only water source, so villagers had to keep using it for everything from bathing to drinking.
Then people began to die. Bodies swelled and some complained of severe headaches. Causes of death were never established, as the nearest hospital was in Thong Pha Phum district, 100km away over rough, pot-holed roads, and autopsies weren't performed.
Klity Lang was a 100-year-old Karen village of around 50 households or 200-300 people, located in deep forest beside the wildlife sanctuary that was the source of the creek. The villagers were farmers, growing mountain rice and vegetables.
In April, 1998, some of the villagers finally got health checks, and news of their plight began to spread.
THE DOCTORS' VIEW
According to the Appeal Court verdict of Dec 18, 2007, of 119 villagers, as many as 112 had levels of lead in their blood high enough to cause poisoning. A doctor from Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok had examined eight villagers and determined they had symptoms of lead poisoning, with four of suffering from severe poisoning.
In another Appeals Court verdict, a doctor described lead as an inorganic compound that could be taken into the human body via the respiratory and digestive systems. Flowing through the blood, it can accumulate in bones, the nervous system, liver and kidneys. It can also cause anaemia, and if it reaches the nervous system can affect brain cells and motor function. In children under 15, lead can impede brain development. It can also affect reproductive functions and be passed down from mother to unborn baby.
The villagers at Klity were categorised into four groups: Those with high lead levels showing symptoms, those with high lead levels but not showing symptoms, those with lead readings under hazardous levels but showing symptoms, and those with lead readings under harmful levels and not showing symptoms. The first and the fourth groups were easy to diagnose, but the doctor suggested medical surveillance of the second and third groups; if symptoms appeared or worsened they required treatment.
LEAD TO THEIR DEATHS
A lead mine and lead processing house were located upstream from Klity village. The lead mine, called Bor Ngam, had been operating since 1970. It would send lead dug from the mine to the processing house six kilometres away. The lead processing house was situated only 30m from the creek that Klity villagers relied on for their water.
According to the Dec 18, 2007, Appeal Court verdict, the company, Lead Concentrated, operated the mine and processing house, under a concession that expired in 1996. The house refined the recovered lead ore through chemicals. Toxic water by-product was treated in three treatment ponds. One pond, however, was found to have a pipe connected to the creek that released contaminated water. The company claimed some toxic water may have been released into the creek during a two-day storm.
Officials from the now defunct Geological Department at Kanchanaburi provincial office examined the mine.
In April 1998, they ordered the mine and processing house to stop operations, but the company was fined only 2,000 baht, as stipulated in the Mine Act of 1967.
The Pollution Control Department also conducted water and riverbed examinations. It found the river upstream from the mine and processing house largely uncontaminated, but below them for about 19km were high levels of lead contamination in the water and riverbed. Klity Lang village lay 11km from the processing house. Lead levels in the creek above the processing house in 1998 were measured at 0.003-0.014mg per litre of water, and 228-665mg per litre in the riverbed. Below the house were readings of 0.025-0.550mg per litre in the water and 8,676-68,920mg per litre in the riverbed.
The National Environmental Committee sets the maximum lead contamination level for surface water at 0.05mg per litre. The US Environmental Protection Agency rules that levels of lead contamination over 400mg per litre of sediment can cause harm to public health and require immediate clean-up.
Pubic health agencies concluded that Klity villagers had high levels of lead in their blood and that river life was contaminated and should not be consumed.
The Pollution Control Department ordered the company to clean up Klity creek. In 1999, the company started to dredge and remove loads of lead contaminated sediment out of the creek. Some 4,600 tonnes of sediment were removed from sections up to 2.5km below the processing house, but they were then buried near the creek.
The Pollution Control Department also ordered the company to present a rehabilitation plan. Two years later the company built two dams to intercept lead contaminated sediment. However, intercepted loads were never removed as the department thought that moving them might cause more lead to dissolve in the water. Environmental advocates said the approach was the same as doing nothing.
In 2003, the first group of eight Klity villagers whose lead poisoning had been certified by Rajavithi Hospital filed a civil lawsuit demanding compensation and a clean-up of Klity creek. In 2007, another 151 villagers followed suit.
In 2004, 22 villagers had also filed a complaint with the Administrative Court to force the Pollution Control Department and the company to accelerate the clean-up and claim compensation from the company.
In the 10 years since the first civil lawsuit, none of the cases have been resolved, except for the complaint with the Administrative Court. On Jan 10, the Supreme Administrative Court delivered a verdict ordering the Pollution Control Department to find ways to clean up the creek. It was held responsible for compensating villagers for loss of a liveable environment (1,000 baht a month) as well as loss of food from the creek (700 baht a month). In total, the Pollution Control Department was required to pay 177,199 baht to each of the 22 plaintiffs.
The two separate civil cases against the company are now with the Supreme Civil Court.
Lead levels in Klity Creek are still higher than the 0.05mg per litre maximum, especially during the rainy season and in readings from the riverbed and river animals. In September last year, shrimp were found to contain 3-26mg per kg, crabs 11-28mg per kg, fish 0.09-11.8mg per kg and shellfish 119-436mg per kg.
The Public Health Ministry in 1986 set the maximum safety level for lead traces in food at 1mg per kilogramme.
About the author
- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang