An Australian gold mine in central Thailand has been cleared to restart operations by the Thai department of mines six weeks after a shutdown over charges of heavy metal contamination into the local community.
Sydney-based Kingsgate Consolidated’s Chatree gold mine 280km north of Bangkok ceased operations in mid-January by order of the Department of Primary Industries and Mines after more than 200 local villagers were found to have arsenic and manganese contamination in their blood.
The mine, the largest in Thailand, overseen by Kingsgate’s 48 per cent share offshoot, Akara Resources, employing 1100 employees, has been under investigation since the order to halt operation in mid-January.
But on Thursday director general of the Department of Primary Industries and Mines, Surapong Chiangthong, said he would sign the order allowing Akara Resources to reopen the mine.
Thailand’s Central Institute of Forensic Science earlier released results of blood tests which showed that half of the 600 villagers living near the mine had elevated levels of heavy metal in their bodies.
From the start Kingsgate executives disputed the charges, saying the company had called in independent international experts and as well as from local universities to carry out tests on the local people.
Executives said the mine did not use arsenic or manganese at the mine to process the gold.
But in line with gold industry operations the company uses cyanide but says it adheres to international standards.
Akara Resources chief executive officer, Pakorn Sukhum, in a statement to AAP, said the company welcomed the departmental decision to allow the mine to recommence operations.
‘We have worked diligently over the past month to reassure the department and local community that we do operate a world class mining operation, and that we care for the health and wellbeing of the local people and environment,’ Mr Pakorn said.
He said the company would continue to work closely with the department and local community.
Thailand’s military-led government had ordered the formation of a special investigation committee to examine the villagers’ complaints that the local environment was contaminated.
A committee member, social scientist and assistant professor at Rangsit University in Bangkok, Smith Tungkasmit, said while the company had met the department’s requirements, he remained concerned for the local people’s wellbeing.
‘According to the department they [Akara] have fulfilled the requirements. But according to my opinion I don’t think they have enough reason for reopening,’ Mr Smith told AAP.
‘They should wait a bit longer,’ he said.
‘It’s still not 100 per cent [sure] that the arsenic and the manganese is coming from the mine.
‘But we also have to find out and work it out whether or not it comes from the mine or not,’ he said.
The committee is to meet on Friday to further assess the investigations.
Local villagers accused the mine of contaminating traditional water sources and forcing them to buy drinking water.
They said the natural water sources used in agriculture also had dried up after being blocked for use by mining.
In 2010 local residents had filed a lawsuit against five Thai state authorities they accused of illegally issuing mining concessions and land use permits to Kingsgate.
A Thai court did order the company to undertake an environmental impact assessment as required by the 2007 constitution.
Kingsgate disputed these claims, saying the company had been operating for several years before new environmental laws were introduced.
Executives had said the mine’s shutdown may lead to lost output of up to 12,000 ounces of gold.
But revenue shortfalls were expected to be made up by processing higher grade ore once work recommenced.
The Kingsgate board requested voluntary suspension of trading in the company’s shares on the Australian Stock Exchange until the resumption of mining and processing in Thailand.