A watershed moment for Thai mining

A watershed moment for Thai mining

Natural limestone croppings are common in the region of Dong Mafai, Nong Bua Lam Phu province. Above, the popular Wat Tham Suwannakuha. (Photo via TAT)
Natural limestone croppings are common in the region of Dong Mafai, Nong Bua Lam Phu province. Above, the popular Wat Tham Suwannakuha. (Photo via TAT)

This month marks a landmark moment for the mining industry.

Last week, the Udon Thani Administrative Court revoked a limestone mining concession in a forest reserve in Nong Bua Lam Phu province, ruling that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and other government agencies had failed to allow public participation, as required by the constitution, prior to granting a permit for the firm to mine limestone.

In the past, judges usually made their decisions based on demonstrable evidence of how the legal rights and lives of locals would be affected by such developments. In the limestone mining case, the court gave weight to the process of project development. The verdict, which can be appealed, will serve as a reminder to state agencies and companies that public participation is a crucial element for project development in areas where natural resources are shared with communities.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

Another development concerning a gold mining project is even more interesting. Earlier this month, a study commissioned by the Department of Primary Industry and Mines revealed that an Akara Resources Plc mineral residue pond might leak and pollute paddy fields located near the company's gold mining site in Phichit.

The study was initiated a few years ago by then industry minister Atchaka Sibunruang amid complaints by villagers and civil society organisations that Akara Resources' gold mining operation there had resulted in polluted water seeping into paddy fields. But testing was only carried out at one of 40 ponds, with more samples in need.

In December 2016, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha used his special power under Section 44 of the interim charter to halt the operation of gold mines in Petchabun and Phichit, citing the harm from mining on health and the environment. Akara Resources then threatened to seek compensation from the government.

The latest study -- conducted by experts from Naresuan University and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan -- found that wastewater from the residue pond had leaked into nearby communities. But the team said further study was needed to find out if the contamination had spread to other areas and whether it posed a health hazard to villagers.

The company still challenged the latest study's methodological application of geophysics and has been adamant that it did not cause the pollution. The firm's claim can only be settled with more scientific studies.

Both movements heralded the wind of change in the mining industry in Thailand. The court verdict last week demonstrates the importance of public participation in mining project development. The Akara Resources case shows the need for government agencies to use science-based information prior to making decisions to deal with mining projects disputes.

Mining is one of Thailand's oldest industries. Started over 120 years ago during the reign of King Rama V, the industry has generated significant revenues for Thailand.

The industry will remain important to the country's economy. But many communities have paid the price along the way. A tin mine project in tambon Rhon Piboon of Nakhon Si Thammarat polluted the soil with arsenic. The problem has lingered as lots of money is needed to rehabilitate affected villagers. Some areas in Kang Koy district, Saraburi have suffered air pollution caused by rock blasting and mining. Villagers in Klity village, a small Karen village near Thungyai Naresuan in Kanchanaburi are no longer using water from a river there as it has been polluted with lead from a mining site. These villagers have suffered from lead poisoning for over a decade, and authorities still cannot clean up the river.

The industry is going to change, and in my view, for the better. The 2017 Mining Act gives more weight to environmental concerns. It requires that the Department of Mineral Resources under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment have a say in the Industry Ministry's concession approval process. It also requires the designation that mining zones must exclude environmentally sensitive areas.

Of course, the law is far from perfect. Conservationists, as usual, still complain that it does not stipulate who should clean up post-mining pollution. The private sector, meanwhile, has lamented that the law will make it hard for companies to do business.

The new law will not only protect the environment and the people but also help the mining industry become more socially responsible.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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