Mines Minister Suy Sem has dismissed a claim by Industry Minister Cham Prasidh, who said that villagers in Kratie province were poisoned and killed by cyanide-tainted water due to run-off from gold mines.
Nearly 300 villagers fell ill during the poisoning case earlier this month, leading to the death of 13 people, after consuming tainted water from the Prek Ter stream in Chetr Borei district.
The Health Ministry initially blamed the tainted water on herbicides and also claimed villagers had died from drinking methanol-laced rice wine.
However, an investigation by the Khmer Times revealed that villagers did not trust the official statements from the government and suspected the cause to be gold mining run-off from locations in bordering provinces.
Mr Prasidh then confirmed their theory on Thursday when he said villagers were poisoned after consuming water tainted with cyanide which was used for mining operations in Mondolkiri and Kratie province.
Mr Prasidh said that some people blamed the poisoning on chromium run-off from herbicides and pesticides used on rubber plantations situated upstream from the Prek Ter stream, but noted herbicides do not contain such a substance.
Mr Prasidh said that his expert officials confirmed the poisoning was caused by a cyanide substance used for cleaning gold in Mondolkiri province that floated downstream to Kratie province.
“They used it without a protection system and when it rained, the pool that stored the cyanide substance overflowed into the stream and caused poisoning,” Mr Prasidh said.
On Monday evening, Mr Sem contradicted Mr Prasidh’s comments, noting that the Environment Ministry sent a sample of blood from the dead to Singapore and that tests found no cyanide.
“Related to poisoning in Kratie province, the Environment Ministry has sent the blood taken from the dead to be tested in Singapore, but it contained no cyanide in the blood,” he said.
“The people died from other substances; like the Ministry of Health said, it was caused by herbicide and pesticide use near the river,” Mr Sem added. “My ministry also visited the area and took photos of herbicide and pesticide containers abandoned near the river and stream. It was also caused by rice wine which the Health Ministry also found.”
Mr Sem said that there are legal mining operators in Mondolkiri and Kratie provinces, but they have not yet done any mining.
He said that the companies began building roads and factories and they did not use cyanide because the operations had yet to start.
“The companies that have licenses, they have not done mining operations yet, so they do not affect the environment,” Mr Sem said.
Mr Sem added that illegal artisanal miners were operating in Mondolkiri province’s Chong Phlas commune.
“Next week, both ministries will go and inspect more places to prevent people from mining illegally,” Mr Sem said.
Sao Sopheap, spokesman for the Environment Ministry, confirmed that a test was sent to Singapore, but said a conclusion has not yet been reached.
Speaking about two weeks ago, several villagers in the area floated the idea of run-off from gold mines after authorities first said the stream was contaminated by pesticides and then said villagers had consumed bad wine.
Phat Chhum, chief of Kantuot commune’s Sre Non village, said yesterday that all villagers returned to the village and were using clean water distributed by authorities.
“Now the villagers dare not use the water from Prek Ter stream because they are afraid of poisoning,” Mr Chhum said. “Our villagers do not know for sure what caused the poisoning.”
Um Sitha, spokesman for the Industry Ministry, said that his ministry tested the water from the stream and found that the water was tainted with cyanide.
“Our officials went there and took water samples and sent a test to a laboratory recognised by international standards,” Mr Sitha said. “There is a chemical substance in the water, and it will affect the villagers living around there.”
“We tested the water and found it was tainted with cyanide,” he noted.