RANGOON — A former government official has accused operators of the Heinda mine in Tenasserim Division of ignoring Burma’s existing law on mines, and has urged those responsible for alleged environmental destruction due to mining activities to step up and address locals’ grievances.
“[The mine operators are] leaving the law behind and it is time they need to face up to it,” Sein Myint, a retired deputy director of the Department of Mines under Burma’s Ministry of Mines, told The Irrawaddy. The former government official said he supported a lawsuit brought by local villagers seeking judicial resolution to their complaints concerning the Heinda tin mine, which is jointly owned by the Thai firm Myanmar Pongpipat Company and Burma’s state-owned Mining Enterprise 2.
Sein Myint said he was with the department from 1990 to 2006, and claimed that the negative impacts of the mining did not become severe until after he left government in 2006.
In a statement released on Sunday, the Dawei Development Association, a local NGO that supports community rights in Tennasserim Division, called for the Myanmar Pongpipat Company and Mining Enterprise 2 “to address impacts caused by the Heinda tin mine on villagers from Myaung Pyo,” a village some two kilometers downstream from Heinda.
The Heinda project has also affected many of the 30 villages downstream from the mine and Myaung Pyo, according to the Dawei Development Association. The NGO said sedimentation and contamination of the Tenasserim River had resulted from the mine, which is located on the upper banks of the river.
A civil suit brought by nine Myaung Pyo villagers in Tenasserim Division was accepted by the Dawei District Court earlier this month, with the plaintiffs claiming to have suffered years of negative environmental impacts from mining activities in the area. The tort is seeking compensation for damages to houses and farmlands allegedly caused by wastewater from the Heinda mine.
The first court hearing is slated for Thursday of this week.
Two out of three well water samples taken from Myaung Pyo were found to be unsuitable for drinking due to levels of arsenic and lead that exceeded the World Health Organization’s maximum permissible limits, the Dawei Development Association said in its statement on Sunday.
“The level of arsenic at Heinda is eight times higher than WHO recommends,” said Saw Myo Myint, a mining consultant for the environmental NGO Green Network. “The level of lead is too much and is dangerous for humans—which can harm reproduction, causing underdeveloped organs at child birth.”
According to the Dawei Development Association, instances of severe flooding during the monsoon season have plagued Myaung Pyo since 2005 because “water is no longer able to drain into the river effectively, due to increased sedimentation from the mining project.”
The Pongpipat manager of the Heinda project could not be reached by The Irrawaddy on Monday, with a staffer at the firm saying the manager was unavailable because he was conducting a visit to the mining site. The government official in charge of mining in Tenasserim Division was also out of the office when contacted by The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Burma’s 1994 Mining Law—a revision of which is expected this year—contains only vague provisions pertaining to environmental protection.
“It is questionable whether the Department of Mines and Mining Enterprise 2 have acted or not acted according to the environmental issue [clauses] stated in the Mining Law,” Sein Myint said.
“However, the company is responsible for acting in accordance with environment conservation guidelines. When there are complaints, the Mining Enterprise 2 has to take care of it on behalf of the Ministry of Mines. If they can’t resolve it, they will seek resolution in cooperation with the Ministry of Mines, which will submit input,” he said, adding that the Heinda case before the Dawei District Court would be a good test of the judiciary’s independence.
In addition to environmental concerns, some villagers have said they can no longer receive land titles from the local government, claiming “the Thai company has requested that they not issue land titles to villagers anymore.”
Daw Tin Hla, a resident of Myaung Pyo, at the press conference on Sunday in Rangoon questioned “whether Myaung Pyo village is under the sovereignty of Thailand or Burma.”
“On my 80-by-300-feet [plot] of farmland, I had betel plants and coconuts, which died out in 2007-08. When the manager of the [mining] project came to check, they saw seven dead betel plants and 12 coconut plants standing in the field. They said they would give 3,000 kyats [US$3] for the remaining betel plants and 6,000 kyats for the coconut plants and the rest, which died out, were not their concern.”
Villagers’ complaints concerning damages, and requests for compensation, have been ignored by both of the mine’s stakeholders, according to the Dawei Development Association.
“The villagers are the ones who have actually faced damages. The village has existed since before the Pongpipat Company arrived,” Sein Myint said.