By Thin Lei Win
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of families in western Thailand are suffering from lead poisoning near a polluted creek that the government has failed to clean up despite a court order two years ago, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
In 1998, Lead Concentrates (Thailand) closed a mine in Klity Creek in Kanchanaburi province, but the 400 or so ethnic Karen subsistence farmers living in a nearby village struggle with health problems and continue to fight for a cleanup, the watchdog group said in a report.
In what activists hailed as a landmark ruling, the Supreme Administrative Court in January 2013 ordered the government to pay $125,000 in compensation and clean up the site.
"This is a test case for whether rule of law really means anything in Thailand when the poor and powerless take on a state agency that has been negligent," Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy director for Asia, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If the (Pollution Control Department) can defy an order from the Supreme Administrative Court without facing severe consequences, it spreads the word that government agencies can do what they want."
Residents of Lower Klity Creek village suffer the symptoms of chronic lead poisoning, such as abdominal pain and headaches, and children born with severe developmental disabilities, the HRW report said.
According to the report, the Pollution Control Department had scheduled to begin the cleanup on May 1 this year, but an official said preparatory research is ongoing.
“We are analysing what are the best methods we can use to clean up the creek," Monthep Utsinthong, a researcher from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment's Pollution Control Department, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Once we have finished gathering information, we will then speak with villagers about whether they are okay with our cleanup methods. We should begin cleaning up sometime next year."
Villagers say the Pollution Control Department has checked lead levels in the soil every month since before the verdict and now needs to act.
"They should stop researching and start cleaning up," Somchai, a farmer who was among the 22 plaintiffs that won the court case, told HRW.
Robertson said the Klity Creek case could set a precedent for court-ordered cleanups of industrial and mining toxic waste sites.
"Never before has a group of villagers successfully sued the government to require they clean up an industrial site," he said.
"Success here could lead to further lawsuits pressing for responsibility for industrial poisoning of communities in seriously affected areas like Map Tha Phut in Rayong, and the gold mines in Loei and Phichit provinces."
(Additional reporting by Kaweewit Kaewjinda)
(Reporting by Thin Lei Win, editing by Alisa Tang.)