02 May 2012

Mystery of Mines: The Effect of Mining on Human Health and the Environment

The Province of Loei in Northeast Thailand is known for its dramatic, jagged mountains and multiple national parks. However, behind this outer beauty lies a toxic secret. Loei’s vast mineral supply is being drained, and in the process is producing chemicals that course quietly through rivers and streams, killing many local species and poisoning the villagers.

Mining takes a tremendous toll on the environment and human health. Not only does it entail boring giant holes in the earth’s surface, but it also requires tremendous amounts of chemicals to ultimately extract these minerals and metals from the rocks. For example, gold, copper, and silver are often found in rocks rich in sulfur. Mining exposes these rocks to the atmosphere for the first time since they were formed. When exposed to oxygen and water, a chemical reaction results producing sulfuric acid. This seeps into the local watershed, decreasing the pH of rivers, streams and groundwater as well as freeing other toxic metals from the rocks it contacts. As these chemicals flow downstream they can kill virtually all aquatic life and badly degrade downstream environments.1

Chemicals most commonly associated with mining are arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead. Arsenic has been linked to skin cancers and tumors, cadmium to liver disease, mercury to nerve damage and lead to mental and growth retardation in children.

The village of Na Nong Bong, a farming community of 220 households located in the Khao Luang district of Loei province, has been fighting against a nearby gold mine for the past six years. In 2006, Tongkum Ltd (TKL) constructed the mine only one kilometer from the village. Chemicals released from the process described above, as well as cyanide leakage from the mine’s unlined tailings ponds have caused major health and environmental impacts in Na Nong Bong. Villagers have reported health problems including eye pain, headaches, vertigo, and skin rashes. A series of health and water tests conducted by the Ministry of Public Health have revealed high levels of cyanide in villagers blood, as well and unsafe levels of arsenic, manganese, cadmium, and lead in the drinking water. In addition, rice yields have fallen two-thirds since the construction of the dam and white spots are present on the villager’s rubber trees, indicating harmful chemical exposure. Snails, fish and other wildlife are no longer able to survive in local ponds and rivers.

Paw Samai Pakmee, a sub-district administrative officer and the president of the local NGO, People Who Conserve Their Hometown stated, “Since 2008, many people over the age of 50 have been dying. Some people can’t use their hands and legs. Their bodies are paralyzed...I’m afraid of the chemicals that are in my body.” Paw Samai is currently channeling his efforts into preventing the expansion of the mine onto neighboring “Phu Lek” mountain, as to ensure that further degradation of the environmental as well as the villagers health is stopped.

One way for Thailand to mitigate the negative impacts of mines is for the government to ensure that promises made in each Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are kept. Before a mine can be constructed an EIA must be conducted to study the impacts which the mine will have on the surrounding environment and people. The conclusions of the EIA produce recommendations to lessen or avoid these negative impacts. Unfortunately, many corporations do not comply with all of these recommendations in an effort to cut corners and save money. If the government ensured that corporations followed through with these recommendations, many ramifications could be prevented.

However, mining, like many other development topics, is not one that has an easy solution. As terrible as the ramifications of mining are, we all use minerals and metals every day. In fact, according to Earthworks and Oxfam International as a US citizen my annual consumption of “newly-mined” minerals is approximately 21 metric tons, that is about 57 kilos per day. 1 This demonstrates that humanity simply cannot live without minerals and metals. The challenge that we are faced with is how to sustainably use this limited resource without draining and polluting the earth as well as harming human health.

1. Earthworks. , & Oxfam America, (2004). Dirty Metals: Mining, communities and the environment. 

 Coral Keegan

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