Too late to save Klity Creek
No matter how big the state's cleanup effort now, it cannot take the waterway back to its prior unspoiled state, though a polluter-pays policy would have helped
Pollution in Klity Creek in the deep forest of Kanchanaburi has been a health and environmental threat for villagers who have relied on its water for consumption for decades. Three years ago, authorities launched a cleanup -- the first state-supervised environmental cleanup in Thailand. The second and final part of this series aims to explore how it is going.
In Lower Klity Creek community, life seemed to return to normal after waste disposal company Better World Green, hired by the state to remove toxic lead from the creek, left. Boats that used to suck sediment from the creek and bulldozers used for scooping up toxic waste for depositing in forest dumpsites moved out.
At first glance, the creek returned to its normal placid state, except for toxic sediment which remains in some parts of the creek and open pits near the community.
Only in last month, the Pollution Control Department (PCD) wrapped up the first phase of toxic decontamination in Klity Creek which started in November 2017 and was supposed to run until August 2020. The company failed to meet the deadline so it was extended to February with the company paying a late penalty.
PCD's director-general Attapol Charoenchansa admitted there will be second phase. The PCD will open bidding to select a company to remove sediment from pits near the community. The second phase will cost 217 million baht.
Polluter Lead Concentrates which operated the lead processing plant in the area was declared bankrupt a few years after the pollution was exposed. The company was ordered to close its mining operation in 1998.
PCD's chief admitted it is impossible that the community will be entirely cleansed of pollution.
"We are now in the process of verifying the cleanup. Our intention is to clean up the creek so locals can return to normal life as much as possible. But we can't eliminate the contamination completely because the place is a source of minerals," Mr Attapol told the media on Wednesday after meeting civic groups and the Lower Klity community who have asked the agency to pause the second phase cleanup.
A survey last month showed the amount of lead in the sediment in the creek has fallen to 1,700-7,000 milligrammes per kilogramme (mg/kg), compared with an overall level of 100,000 mg/kg before the cleanup took place.
The PCD told the Administrative Court that it will take overall amount of lead contamination down to 1,800 mg/kg. The department's standard for lead contamination in sediment is 35.8 mg/kg on normal land.
Independent experts from Naresuan University in November 2020 tested water in the creek and found more than 7,000mg/kg of lead -- 12 times higher than the safe level set by the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Under the contract, private waste disposal firm Better World Green (BWG), was required to dredge the riverbed to remove lead contaminants, and take it outside the community.
Because the budget was insufficient, BWG could dredge only two 4km sections of the 22-kilometre creek, according to Akrawit Khankaew, vice president of BWG.
He said the the cleanup requires more work than the PCD stated in the contract. The company later found another large source of toxic sediments buried in open pits upstream and removed part of it, which was outside the tasks listed in the contract.
The company's workers dug out more than 8,000 tonnes of polluted sediment from underwater and 32,000 tonnes of lead contaminant from mine waste dumping pits in the upstream area and along the bank of the creek.
POLLUTER PAYS PRINCIPLE
Apart from the pollution issue, another question arises from the Klity Creek Cleanup case, and that is why taxpayers have to finance the cleanup when the pollution was caused by private sector.
PCD spent 450 million baht of taxpayers' money on the first phase and is poised to spend another 217 million baht on the second phase.
The cleanup cost raises the question whether Thailand has failed to apply the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) in regulating industrial development -- practices adopted in overseas countries including the US, the European Union and even Ghana in 2011.
PPP was introduced by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1972 as an economic principle for allocating the costs of pollution control.
In 1992, the principle was adopted by the United Nations in its Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Despite Thai authorities preaching sustainability, the country has never put PPP in place legally.
The government has instead resorted to lawsuits to claim the cost of environmental damage from polluters case by case, according to Somchai Songprakob, the PCD deputy director-general and the cleanup project's leader.
"That imposes financial risk on the state budget when a polluter is declared bankrupt such as in the case of Lead Concentrates," Mr Somchai said. The firm was located upstream of Klity Creek and discharged toxic lead waste into the river for decades.
Mr Somchai said the PCD is drafting law to mandate the polluter pays principle in commercial and industrial production and the supply chain.
"Ideally, we want to set up an environmental disaster management fund which provides financial resources to government agencies when they must handle a disaster," he said.
Some of that money at least must come from the central government budget.
However, Sitthikiat Kotchaso, a lawyer from EnLAW, a non-governmental organisation promoting environmental rights, suggested the fund should be raised from companies' tax payments. Above all, he said the PPP law must emphasise local community participation in development.
"Though local communities are allowed to give opinions [through public hearings], the government has the final say," Mr Sitthikiat said. "The PPP law should ensure people are included in every step of the process -- from project assessment, project scrutiny to environmental restoration."
It remains unknown when PP bill will be sent to the House for a reading. Yet one thing certain is the law is too late to help Karen villagers living in the Lower Klity Community.
"If the PPP was adopted several years ago, the Kility Creek saga may have had a different outcome," said Thanakrit Tongfah, a Karen villager living along Kility Creek. "The company would be more cautious in its operation. At least they would be aware they must be responsible for the pollution they cause.
"We have fought in the courts for more than 10 years. We won cases [against the PCD and the mining company.] But the Klity Creek we knew has gone forever. It is too late to turn back time."
This story was produced with the support of the Internews Earth Journalism Network and Thai Society of Environmental Journalists and Green News.