Report Blames Gold Mines For Pollution

Gold mines in Cambodia are damaging the health and livelihood of locals and their livestock, devastating the environment and leading to the exploitation of thousands of miners, according to the first-ever survey of gold mining in the country.

The scale and technology of mining at the 19 known gold deposits in Cambodia are on the rise, with toxic chemicals becoming increasingly common, while mining regulations remain mostly unenforced, said the Oxfam Am­erica report, scheduled for public release today.

“This report identifies that the most significant barriers to im­provement in environmental protection, workplace health and safety conditions, and local community well-being, is a lack of government management of the sector and a lack of training amongst the gold miners,” the report said.

The survey team, lead by Sieng Sotham, director of the De­part­ment of Geology at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, chose to look at four mines, in Kompong Cham, Kompong Thom, Kratie and Ratanakkiri provinces, because they were

representative of the larger picture of mining in Cambodia, Oxfam America information officer Jon Bugge said Sunday.

The portrait painted is exceptionally grim. At Phnom Chi in Kompong Thom and Sampov Loun commune in Kompong Cham, miners use cyanide in leach pits to separate gold from mined ore. In both locations, miners stored the cyanide-soaked leftovers near major waterways, the report stated.

Heavy rains can wash the pollution into the river and ground water, and such pollution may have been responsible for a re­ported mass poisoning in Kom­pong Thom province in 2003, which locals said killed hundreds of animals and at least one person, the report stated.

“Villagers from Sampov Loun have no choice but to use water from contaminated wells as they are not able to find better sources,” Sieng Sotham wrote. And residents of a nearby village relocated because the pollution became unbearable.

At Prey Meas in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadaw district, miners mix mercury with mined rock to separate out the gold. The gold-mercury mix is then heated, the toxic mercury vaporizes and the gold is isolated.

Workers breathing the mercury risk brain, lung, nervous system, kidney and other organ damage, as well as nausea, vomiting, paralysis and even death. Unlike cyanide, mercury stays in the body, and causes long-term damage to those chronically exposed. The vapors also re-condense, polluting the soil and water. Mercury builds up in fish, and slowly poisons those who eat them.

Adding to the environmental dev­astation, the concentration of people in generally remote mine sites leads to deforestation and hunting of wild animals.

“Once the forests are felled, agricultural soils destroyed, wildlife hunted, and water re­sources polluted it is difficult and expensive to remediate the damage,” the report said.

At Sampov Loun and Phnom Chi, the government awarded the mining sites to foreign companies in the form of concessions. The companies have introduced new and destructive mining technologies, taxed the miners and restricted access to the mines, the report added. Their permits however, allow only exploration to see whether gold is present.

Though locals reported that some of the companies have been mining for years, the government does not officially acknowledge the mining activity.

Suon Dy, director of the Kom­pong Cham Industry, Mines and Energy Department, said Sunday that a company, Sun Trading, was not mining in Sampov Loun, but said a few villagers mine secretly.

In a June interview, Sok Leng, director of the directorate of mines at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy flatly denied that any precious metal or gem mining was going on in the country, with the exception of a few very poor local miners.

Exploration permits only allow survey techniques and equipment that do not break ground, he said, adding that the ministry had issued no exploitation permits, which are the only permits that grant permission to mine.

Repeated calls to Sok Leng at the end of last week were unsuccessful. His deputy director, Mony Rath, would not comment Sunday.

Companies mining under ex­ploration permits are not only largely unregulated, but they are not paying royalties to the government, the report said.

And as officials deny companies with exploration permits are actually mining, the ministry has issued or renewed at least half a dozen permits this year alone, according to documents obtained Sunday by The Cambodia Daily.

On their permits, at least two of the companies, Vannvymex Co Ltd, and Jinqu Mineral Co, Ltd, listed the address of land and forestry concession giant Phea­pimex.

Guards at the Pheapimex compound would not allow a reporter to enter Sunday and said Pheap­imex staff were not in the compound and he did not know when they would return.

Listed numbers for the company did not work. Numbers were not listed for Vannvymex or Jin­qu.

(Ad­ditional reporting by Van Roeun)



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