Mines and Environment ministry officials yesterday inspected a Chinese mining firm in Mondolkiri province in the wake of a poisoning case that left 13 villagers dead in Kratie province.
Nearly 300 villagers fell ill during a poisoning case earlier this month, leading to the death of 13 people in Chetr Borei district where water from the Prek Ter stream was contaminated.
About 80 villagers in Mondolkiri province were also hospitalised after poisoning from stream water.
The Health Ministry initially blamed the tainted water on herbicides and also claimed villagers had died from drinking methanol-laced rice wine.
However, several villagers told the Khmer Times that they suspected they may have been poisoned by cyanide run-off from gold mines in Kratie and Mondolkiri, a theory later confirmed by Industry Minister Cham Prasidh and then denied by Mines Minister Suy Sem.
Nonetheless, the Mines and Environment ministries yesterday led a team of nearly 200 officials, including military and local police, to inspect Rong Cheng Industrial Investment Cambodia in Mondolkiri’s Chung Phlas commune.
Leat Limkun, chief of Chong Phlas commune, said the officials made the visit because they suspected the company was responsible for dumping toxic waste into waterways that then led to the poisonings.
Three teams collected samples of waste and stream water in the company’s compound and the surrounding area, Mr Limkun said.
“Joint officials collected mining waste and water from a stream near the company grounds,” he said. “They suspect the company discharged a chemical substance into the stream.”
The results of the samples collected were not available yesterday. However, Rong Cheng Industrial Investment issued a statement denying that it had dumped any waste into the environment.
“Rong Cheng obtained a mining license on February 19, 2016, but it has only built infrastructure thus far,” the statement said. “Rong Cheng has not exploited any ore, and never extracted any gold in any form.”
“As of the date of this statement, Rong Cheng has never purchased even one gram of cyanide,” the statement added.
The company noted that it is fully cooperating with the government because it wants to clear its name from being wrongly linked to the poisoning case.
When reached by phone, deputy director of the Rong Cheng company Le Man Gun said that the company was granted a license to mine on 2,800 hectares of land in Keo Seima district’s Chong Phlas commune, but noted that the company has yet to start mining operations.
“We have not used chemical substances like some people accuse us of doing because our company has just started to build infrastructure and we have not done any mining yet,” he said.
Mondolkiri Governor Svay Sam Eang could not be reached for comment.
Sann Darith, director of the Mondolkiri mines and energy department, declined to comment.
Mr Limkun, the Chong Phlas commune chief, added that the team of officials are set to next visit the Chong Phlas Mining Community, comprised of 700 families mining on 43 hectares of land.
Mr Sem, the mines minister, on Wednesday held a meeting with more than 20 mining companies, warning them to follow the law or their licenses would be revoked.
Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry yesterday announced that blood tests sent to Singapore from the dead Kratie villagers showed that they had high levels of methanol in their bodies.
Tin Ponlork, general secretary of the General Secretariat of Council for Sustainable Development at the ministry, told reporters that the blood samples confirmed the explanation provided by the Health Ministry for the deaths.
“We sent the sample to be tested at a laboratory in Singapore,” he said. “In general, it contains methanol in the blood sample of some victims.”
Health Minister Mam Bunheng declined to comment yesterday, while Ly Sovann, spokesman for the ministry, could not be reached for comment.