Locals struggle to cope with gold mine impacts

Locals struggle to cope with gold mine impacts

Tests confirm more than 40% of residents have high levels of metal in their blood

After a decade of fighting local mining activities, key leader Thanyarat Sindhornthammthat is now left with only two neighbours and a temple with one monk in a small village in Phichit's Thap Khlo district.

While about 100 residents decided to relocate to nearby communities after the controversial gold mine opearated by Akara Resources Plc started in 2001, Ms Thanyarat decided to remain in her two-storey wooden home where she has lived since birth, despite the noise and air pollution that resulted from rock explosions.

"I can't say whether the mining operations follow good practices for environmental protection. But the fact is, we have many cases of sickness due to blood contaminated with heavy metal," Ms Thanyarat said.

"The question is, where is this coming from? It is true there is heavy metal present in nature but it is deep inside the earth. Would it have spread without any human activity?" the 39-year-old resident asked.

Like most residents, Ms Thanyarat looks as healthy as anyone you know. But her blood suggests otherwise.

According to blood tests on 1,004 residents in 14 communities living around the mining sites in Phichit, Phetchabun and Phitsanulok in 2014 and 2015, the Central Institute and Forensic Science at Rangsit University and the Ministry of Public Health found 41.8% of residents have high levels of manganese in their blood.

Local communities living around the gold mine have been seeking government assistance to clean up the environment following a cabinet resolution on May 10 not to renew or issue new gold mining licences.

The cabinet decision is likely to result in all mining operations being suspended by the end of this year.

Ms Thanyarat said it was unclear if the medical results led to the cabinet resolution, but the locals still needed more than just the closure of mining operations. She said now is the right time to rehabilitate the environment.

"We want to see a clean environment return to our communities," she said.

She said the government should declare the mining site and communities living nearby as disaster zones so that all state agencies can work together to rehabilitate the environment -- especially the underground water which the tests by the ministry and university showed were contaminated with heavy metal -- along with with rehabilitation plans for locals who have suffered from the mining.

"Two big questions still unanswered are: how will the environment be cleaned up, and how will locals who have suffered get help?" she said.

Underground water is the main source of water for the locals, but they have refused to use the water as it has caused skin irritations, she said, adding residents have been living off clean water from Phichit province that is distributed daily.

Instead of growing their own vegetables, locals would wait to use their cash coupons, also provided by the province, to buy produce from a vendor who visits the villages once a week.

The researchers who performed tests advised locals not to eat vegetables they have planted in their gardens due to fear of heavy contamination in the soil. But they have still been growing vegetables and rice to sell in the markets.

"Water here is more expensive than gold. I have spent about 800 baht a month to buy water for daily consumption for my son," said Somnuk Saenmontri.

A doctor at the Ramathibodi Hospital suggests Ms Somnuk's 12-year-old son be relocated as his blood was found to contain a high level of manganese, leading to weakness in his muscles.

The mother said her son's symptoms have improved since she stopped him drinking underground water.

Saifon Poeyklin, a 42-year-old resident, said her two children have already moved to stay with her mother's family in Nakhon Sawan due to heavy skin irritation and weak muscles.

In 2010, locals filed a complaint with the Phitsanulok Administrative Court, demanding the Environmental Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) study the second phase of mining operations, which obtained a licence before the 2007 constitution required the EHIA study be conducted.

The court ruled in favour of the locals in 2012. However, the company later appealed to a higher court, explaining the EHIA study wasn't needed as the law could not be made retroactive.

The case is still under consideration by the court.

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