Government experts are testing a protected water reservoir in Banteay Meanchey province for possible traces of hazardous chemical runoff from gold mining sites upstream, a conservation expert said Thursday.
Nhan Bunthorn, chief of the Wildlife Protection Office’s crane conservation unit, said he summoned the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology to investigate the Ang Trapaing Thmar Reservoir after villagers there complained of skin rashes.
Earlier this month a man who often bathed in the Ang Trapaing Thmar reservoir developed a skin rash. In an ill-informed attempt to treat himself, he rubbed pesticides onto his skin. He died days later.
Several other villagers living in Phnom Srok district have also developed rashes after bathing in the reservoir, Nhan Bunthorn said.
“We are testing the water quality because the [gold] mine might not be the problem. Local people use pesticides as well, and we can not yet reach the conclusion that the water quality is due to the mines,” he said.
Nhan Bunthorn, who monitors the reservoir’s population of endangered Eastern Sarus cranes, said that ever since gold explorations began two years ago in the hills above the reservoir, the water quality has changed.
“The water looks worse than before, with a sort of algae growing in it.”
Nhan Bunthorn said he had heard that the mines used acid in their search for gold, but he was not sure what caused the rash or the algaelike growth.
Thach Sambath, who worked for Angkor Wat Cement Ltd— which once mined for gold in the Andaung Bor area located at the intersection of three districts in Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces—said on Thursday he used mercury to sift gold from unearthed soil.
Thach Sambath said he worked in a mine shaft that was dug 62 years ago and that the mine was not responsible for any changes in the water quality of Ang Trapaing Thmar Reservoir.
“The techniques that we use with mercury are not affecting the environment and water quality downstream because the water we use stays in the area,” he said.
According to ministry documents, in 2001 the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy issued a two-year contract to Angkor Wat Cement to conduct mining explorations in Andaung Bor. The contract has since expired and operations have stopped.
Thach Sambath, who claims to have lost nearly $4,000 in exploration costs, said he is still convinced there is gold to be found and is trying to renew the rights to explore the area.
“I’ve discovered the gold mine’s potential,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials said there have been reports of illegal small-scale gold mining operations in Andaung Bor. Mao Tim, Oddar Meanchey first deputy governor, said he deployed a force of 20 policemen to prevent illegal mining in the area.
Downstream, Nhan Bunthorn said he hopes authorities will take measures to protect the environment around the reservoir.
“We are very concerned about the health of the local farmers and the area’s ecosystem,” he said.