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Community's Fight Over Lead Pollution Becomes Test of Thailand's Environmental Law


In northwestern Thailand a tiny community is fighting for compensation for water pollution that has killed several people. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, the legal battle is seen as a test case for Thai communities that face industrial pollution.

The stream running through the village near Klity Creek in northwestern Thailand hides a terrible legacy.

Nearly 20 years ago, lead waste dumped into the creek from a mine 20 kilometers upstream began polluting the creek.

The fish perished, the village cattle - a vital source of income - fell ill and died, wiping out the villagers' savings.

Worse, the villagers soon became victims of the water's invisible danger.

By the mid-1990's, this ethnic Karen community reported an increasing number of children born with physical abnormalities and mental delays. Several women miscarried pregnancies.

The community tried to have the Thai mining company, Lead Concentrate, halt operations. Village headman Yasa Nasuanswan says the effort failed.

Yasa says the company dismissed the pleas saying the fish from the creek were safe to eat.

In 1998, Thailand's Pollution Control Department found lead concentrations in the river sediment were 3,000 times above permissible levels.

Villagers say over time, the lead poisoning claimed several lives, including Yasa's 12-year-old daughter. He said appeals to the government for assistance failed.

He said nine years ago the government continued to dismiss the claims although doctors had confirmed the creek was the source of many illnesses in the village.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which accumulates gradually in the body, until it damages the nervous system and the kidneys. It also can cause children to grow more slowly and to develop learning disabilities . In adults, lead can cause high blood pressure, swollen joints, digestive problems and reproductive problems.

The Department of Mineral Resources in 1998 fined Lead Concentrate about $50, ordered the company to suspend operations and to clean up the creek. But the villagers say although the mining has stopped, the company did a poor cleanup job, merely dredging the creek and piling the waste on the shore.

Two women in the village help with the cooking at the Buddhist monastery. They rely on the rain and waters from nearby forested hills, because they can not use the creek water.

They say they need to be very careful with the water. Sometimes children play in the creek after heavy rains but soon fall ill and need to be taken to a clinic.

In 2000, eight villagers traveled to Bangkok for medical treatment and doctors confirmed the high levels of lead in their blood.

The Lawyers Council of Thailand took up the case and filed suit against the company, and a separate case against the Pollution Control Department for failing to protect the community.

In early May, Thailand's Administrative Court ruled in favor of the village. But the court awarded just $30,000 to the villagers, instead of the $3 million in compensation they had sought.

Surapong Kongchantuk, director of the Karen Studies and Development Center, says the victory was a landmark ruling in Thai environmental law.

Surapong says the decision sets a standard for environmental decisions by saying that if contamination or damage occurs, the polluter and regulating body or agency must take responsibility.

But the fight is not over. The Pollution Control Department appealed the verdict. The villagers also lodged a separate appeal, saying the court's compensation order is too low.

Somchai Homla-or, a lawyer for the villagers, says the case has wide implications for Thailand. The judgment, he says, warns companies that they can not avoid pollution controls. The decision also has implications for the Thai bureaucracy.

"Our problem in Thailand is that the government agency which has the duty to control and enforce the environmental law does not perform their job," said Somchai. "So we try to do this as a test case, in order to get the precedent to change the behavior of the government agencies and the businessman or the investor."

The people of Klity Creek now await a final judgment from the Supreme Administrative Court.

Somchai is optimistic the higher court will rule in their favor.

For communities throughout Thailand, the ruling, he says, will strengthen their cases when they try to protect themselves from pollution.

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