Near Letpadaung, Factory Pollution Raises Health Fears

By Nyein Nyein 12 December 2013

Concerns are growing about the potential health effects of the Letpadaung copper mine project in Sagaing Division, following allegations that pollution from a factory connected to the project may be linked to respiratory illnesses and damaged crops.

A Burmese military company will use the sulfuric acid factory to purify copper from the Letpadaung mine, which is still undergoing construction and has not yet begun extracting minerals. But the factory has been operating for six years to purify the copper from two other nearby mining projects, at the Sabae Taung and Kyay Sin Taung mountain ranges.

In Kan Kone village, about 200 yards from the factory, soil samples in a recent study were found to contain unhealthy levels of sulfate, according to a well-known environmentalist. Local residents are also complaining of air pollution, saying that in addition to crop damage, their families have suffered from respiratory and other health problems.

Environmentalist Win Myo Thu led the study of soil samples with his NGO, Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (ALARM), whose members are trained in environmental assessment procedures and laboratory testing. He said six soil samples showed high sulfate levels.

“We began testing, both at our lab and the government’s lab for agriculture and land use, in early November,” he told The Irrawaddy.

He hopes to launch a more official health impact assessment in Kan Kone starting in January, with help from public health specialists.

“We need public health expertise, or expertise on respiratory illness,” he said.

The Mo Gyo Sulfuric Acid Plant became operational in 2007 and is run by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), a Burmese military company that is backing the Letpadaung mining project along with China’s Wanbao company and the Burma government.

Since the factory became operational, people in Kan Kone have reported an increase in lung, throat and other respiratory problems, as well as trachoma, an eye disease. Last year, amid heightened media attention over the Letpadaung mine, they began documenting the deaths that they believed could be connected to factory pollution.

In the village of about 3,800 people, 31 deaths from January to November this year were believed to be linked to pollution. That compares with 29 deaths last year.

Late last year, four children from Kan Kone who were suffering from cerebral palsy, vision loss and in one case a brain tumor underwent medical testing at Rangoon Children’s Hospital, at the request of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who chaired a parliamentary inquiry committee looking into the Letpadaung mine project.

State-run media reported that medical testing revealed “no symptoms of exposure to acid.”

In August this year, hundreds of residents protested against the factory, demanding that it be relocated farther from their village. The factory operates 24 hours a day and produces nearly all the sulfuric acid needed for the Sabae Taung and Kyay Sin Taung mining projects.