STORIES

Thai gold mine blamed for sickening local villagers is set to reopen

By Kannikar Petchkaew/Mongabay

Standing in the house where she has lived since she was born 45 years ago, Premsinee Suntornthammathat points to the temple where her grandparents took her to pray as a child. During festivals, hundreds of people from nearby provinces flocked here. Women gossiped and cooked together in a huge kitchen, while men exchanged stories of farming and boar hunting.

Across the road stood the school where she studied from the age of three. She loved the big playground, she says. “The grass was so soft that we never hurt falling.”

But the village of Premsinee’s memories is gone. The temple still stands, but no one visits it. The school building has crumpled to the ground and been swallowed by overgrown trees.

Premsinee stands alone in a ghost town, her neighbours long gone. Khao Mo, the mountain her village is named for, has been hollowed out into an open-pit gold mine, its highest point now standing just 100 metres (330 feet) above her house.

In November 2001, Thailand’s first modern gold mine started operations. With a Thai name meaning bravery, the Chatree Mining Complex is owned by Akara Resources Public Company, a subsidiary of Sydney-based Kingsgate Consolidated Ltd.

Chatree, which straddles the provinces of Phichit and Phetchabun in lower-northern Thailand, is made up of two ore fields and two processing plants, and has produced more than 1.8 million ounces (51,000 metric tons) of gold and more than 10 million ounces (283,00 metric tons) of silver since it began production.

For now, the mine stands silent. It was shut down in January 2017, following years of complaints and lawsuits from people living nearby, who say the mining damaged their health and the environment.

But the silence may not last much longer. In 2017, Akara sued the Thai government for revoking its permit. That case remains pending in an international arbitration tribunal, but in January 2022, the government agreed to allow the mine to reopen.

Decades of disputes

By 2004, three years into rock blasting and mineral processing, residents of Khao Mo and nearby villages started moving out. The mining company bought their land and paid compensation, and hundreds of households relocated. Only a handful of people, like Premsinee, decided to stay.

“There were blasts and dust everywhere,” she recalls. “When they blew the mountain away the air was dark with dust for days.”

During the 15 years the mine operated, multiple lawsuits were launched on both sides. A group of 300 residents filed a class-action suit demanding compensation for health problems. Another group filed cases accusing the company of trespassing on national forest land, resulting in an ongoing investigation by the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation. Residents also sued the Thai authorities for issuing mining permits without conducting an environmental impact assessment — a complaint that was substantiated. In turn, the company has launched defamation suits against residents, activists and academics.

Nirun Yingmahisaranon, who, as director-general of the Department of Primary Industries and Mines, was the original grantor of the concession, says complaints starting piling up within a few years of the mine’s launch.

At first they centered on the noise and dust, which Nirun says were “manageable.” That escalated to reports of heavy metal in water sources, and then to two rounds of mass blood tests of people living near the mine, who complained that chemicals and heavy metal runoff from the mine were making them ill.

In 2014, the country’s Central Institute of Forensic Science found that more than half of the 731 adults tested, and more than two-thirds of 67 children tested, had higher-than-normal levels of heavy metals, mostly arsenic and manganese. Akara said the blood tests were unscientific, unjust and unfair.

In 2015, another mass blood test was organised by a joint working group including representatives from Akara, residents’ groups and government bodies. Of 1,004 adults tested, 420 were found to have manganese levels exceeding safe standards, 196 had unsafe levels of arsenic, and 59 had unsafe cyanide levels. Tests were also run on 297 children under 15, of whom 165 were found to have unsafe levels of manganese, 53 unsafe arsenic levels and two unsafe levels of cyanide. Though Akara initially participated in the joint working group, it never endorsed the results.

“That started local panic,” Nirun says. “Knowing the levels of heavy metals in their bodies.”

Toxic levels of cyanide

Manit Lampason, 70, is a participant in the class-action suit. Originally from Khao Mo village, he sold his land and moved to a new village 2.5 kilometres away, only to find his new house sits less than one kilometre from the mine’s tailing pond, where waterborne mining waste is stored.

“They told us we will be safe here, but it is not,” Manit says. “I have been living with the cyanide pond for years.”

In 2011, a lab test from a government hospital found an alarming level of cyanide in his body. The report, viewed by the author, found a cyanide level of 1.04 micrograms per liter (μg/L), while the lab’s reference range said levels exceeding 1 μg/L amounted to “toxification.” A repeat test five month later at the same lab found an even higher level: 1.56 μg/L.

Cyanide has long been used in gold mines to extract the valuable gold from the ore. But in high concentrations it is toxic, leading to a ban on its use in gold and silver mining in countries including the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Costa Rica, as well as some U.S. states.

Akara, however, maintains that the Chatree mine’s safety and environmental regulations are up to international standards, describing the mine as “one of the world’s safest and best practice gold mines” with an “impeccable health and safety record.”

“We used a 130 ppm [parts per million] solution of cyanide in the process, then detoxify it to less than 20 ppm — this is a very strict international standard in water control,” Cherdsak Utha-aroon, Akara’s general manager of external affairs, tells the author. “But the actual solution from our plant has never been higher than 10 ppm, and when it stored in the tailing pond, the concentration will eventually go down to 0.2-0.25 ppm. Generally speaking, this concentration of cyanide is less than what is in our coffee cup.”

‘I didn’t even want to breathe’

When Pisamai Riangpa was four months pregnant in 2015, a blood test taken at a government hospital showed elevated amounts of heavy metals in her body. Her manganese level was recorded at 1.39 μg/L, above the normal reference range of 0.2-1.1 μg/L.

“I felt dizzy and fatigued all the time but first thought it’s a pregnancy side effect. It lasted for several years in me,” she says.

Her son was also born with high manganese levels, and had to be to hospitalized regularly in his first year. He is six years old now, and in good health, says Pisamai, who adds she believes his health has improved because the mine was shut down when he was one year old.

Pranom Chimpalee, who lives half a kilometre from the mine pit in Nong Saeng village in Petchabun province, says her family has also suffered. Her neighbours have long since left, and her house stands among torn-down ruins.

Two years ago, her 80-year-old mother died after years of suffering a skin disease whose cause she was never able to determine. “There were burns and purulent wounds over her body,” Pronam says. “She always cried in pain. I carried her on my motorcycle to the hospital 16 kilometres away.  We could not afford better transportation and my mother was so frail that she could barely straighten herself. I had to bind her with my clothing to reach the hospital.”

Akara denies allegations of heavy metal leaks, and says it has worked closely and carefully with the communities to make sure residents around the mine have a better life and are in good health. “Several blood tests showed no harm to anyone,” Cherdsak says.

But a tearful Pranom says, “It’s unbearable. I didn’t want to even breathe. No one ever come to rescue us.” She now lives with her 84-year-old uncle, who also has elevated levels of arsenic and manganese, and whose body is occasionally wracked with pain. “Sometimes, it is so much that he has tried walking to the road, hoping to be hit to dead by any passing car,” Pranom says.

Nirun, from the mining department, does not deny that heavy metal poisoning is a major issue in the region around the mine. However, he says this does not amount to proof the mine is responsible: areas rich in precious metals like gold and silver often also have high levels of heavy metals and other minerals occurring naturally in the soil and groundwater. What is needed, Nirun says, is a concrete plan to ease the problem for the residents. However, nearly two decades after the mine began operations, no such plan exists.

Shut down by the junta

In 2015, after years of complaints, conflicts and legal action, residents brought the case to the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a military general who seized power in a coup in May 2014.

In December 2016, Prayuth exercised his power under the interim charter to order the mine suspend all operations effective 1 January 2017.

Citing the free-trade agreement between Australia and Thailand, Akara’s parent company, Kingsgate, announced in November 2017 that it had filed a suit against Thailand at an international arbitration tribunal, claiming the suspension order amounted to “unlawful expropriation.” The company said it was seeking to recover “very substantial damages” and vowed to “vigorously prosecute” its claim.

The case is still pending, and the exact sum Kingsgate is seeking has not been made public. If the arbitration tribunal reaches a verdict, it will be legally binding. But the company has the right to revoke the case if negotiations with Thailand are successful.

In January 2022, Thailand granted the company permission to resume and to extend the concession to end in 2031. Another survey concession, covering nearly 61,000 hectares (150,000 acres), was also awarded to Akara.

Prayuth has dismissed allegations made by opposition politicians that the permission was granted in exchange for Kingsgate Consolidated dropping its case against the country.

Bringing political and market pressure to bear

The news that mining operations will resume brought renewed outcry among dismayed residents.

In March, two months after Kingsgate announced plans to relaunch operations, Premsinee was among a group of residents who rushed to Parliament to meet with opposition politicians and ask for help.

Opposition MP Jiraporn Sindhuprai, from the Pheu Thai Party, and for years a prominent anti-mine voice, said she plans to highlight the issue during a no-confidence debate scheduled for May, which will be televised nationwide.

In the meantime, the villagers have vowed to take any action necessary to prevent the mine from reopening.

Lertsak Khamkongsak, an environmentalist and leader of the Commoners’ Party, which was founded years ago by anti-gold-mining protesters, says residents will take legal action against anyone who allows the Chatree mine to reopen while the case is still under the international arbitration. This list, Lertsak says, includes “the director general of the Department of Primary Industries and Mines, and the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Industry, to name a few.”

And while Kingsgate says it needs hefty funding to restart the mine and has asked Thai government for support in raising the money, Lertsak has a different idea.

“We will protest at Thailand Stock Market, where Akara has long made efforts to list itself, to notify the public and investors of their hostile [actions] and ask them to refrain from supporting this hazardous business,” he says.

Manit, who still lives a half-mile from the mine tailing storage facility, says he dreads the resumption of mining activities. “I will now have to sleep with the cyanide pond, breathing it in every single day like I used to.”

The height of the tailings dam concerns him too. Such dams can and have collapsed with devastating human and environmental consequences.

Reopening, but not any time soon

Kingsgate says it expects to open more mine pits in the area, which could extend its operations for well over three decades.

But company representative Cherdsak says it will be months before operations can resume. “The earliest may be before the end of this year,” he says. “COVID-19 made everything more difficult and much slower. Machine and repair pieces required a longer time to deliver. Everything will start not early like we expect. There have been over five years of halting, we have lots of brushing up to do.”

Though he dismisses all the allegations regarding environmental contamination, Cherdsak says it will take hard work to get the locals understand and accept the mine.

Nirun Yingmahisaranon of the mining department also says the mine has caused long and deep conflicts in nearby communities.

While many have joined protests and lawsuits, not all local people are unhappy the mine will reopen. In its heyday, the Chatree gold mine employed more than 800 workers on the ground.

Wisoot Kaefoi, 54, says he is eagerly waiting to go back to work as a truck driver in the mine, a job he held for 13 years. He says he is concerned that after five years’ absence he will be seen as too old for the job by his boss. The health risks do not concern him, he says.

Wisoot dismisses the claims against the mine as greedy, and says the long-running protests are driven only by people seeking money. “Those who claimed to have health issues live miles away when I have sat with the ore every single day,” he says. “If there must be someone who is sick, it should be me.” Wisoot says he will support the reopening of the mine, which he says will benefit local workers and their families.

New requirements for mining operations

Amid the ongoing debate over Akara’s mine, the Thai government has introduced a new National Gold Policy. New regulations include a requirement that mining firms undertake extensive studies to establish baseline environmental and human health indicators to serve as benchmarks for ongoing testing and monitoring. The act also calls creates a community protection mechanism, and stipulates that gold should also be refined within the country instead of being exported raw.

In addition, Thailand’s newly amended Mineral Act now requires community consent for any new concessions. The act creates local committees, including representatives from the community, government agencies and the company, empowered to allow or suspend concessions. It also calls for taxes and royalties to be paid at the local level rather than going exclusively to the central government. The act will also mandate that developers establish a relief fund in case of any negative impacts, and provides stiffer fines and penalties, including jail time, for violations.

Nirun, who is now under fire as the person who originally granted the permission for the Chatree gold mine, says he is optimistic. “Under new laws and regulations, the investor could operate with confidence and it will ease the public concern over the safety of their health and their environment.”

Now that is has been reinstated, the Chatree mine complex will stand as the only gold mine in Thailand.

A second, much smaller mine located five hours’ drive away, which was shuttered under the same order in 2016, will not be reopening. Protests, including months of road blockades, hampered operations and led to the bankruptcy of the mine company. Lertsak was the leader of that movement. He says he is bracing to launch a similar movement against Chatree, too.

“I do hope we would not be forced to reach that day.”

This story was commissioned, produced and first published by Mongabay. HaRDstories republished the article with permission from Mongabay under the Creative Commons Rights.

Kannikar Petchkaew is an independent journalist covering a wide range of topics from armed conflict to human rights violations. Her work can be found on Inter Press Service, The Straits Times, Mongabay, Earth Journalism Network and Mekong Eye.