Leon Carrington, who works in ceramics, told me on his arrival in London last night: "I saw the waters flowing past my town turn a filthy brown. The cyanide waste came like a great brown slick covering the water from the mine 80 miles upstream. It was dreadful to sea. The gold mine should be stopped from destroying our land. The river was so rich, four miles wide and full of fine fish. It had in it giant otters, dolphins, porpoises. It flowed down between the mountains through the forest. Jaguars, deer, monkeys, boa constrictors, all came to it to drink and swim as did I myself and all my family ."
Carrington continued: 'When I travelled by boat towards the mouth of the river on my way to the airport, there were dead fish everywhere. It made me sick to see it. Others told me they had seen dead pigs floating belly-up down the river and even a dead crocodile, all poisoned by the mine" Carrington comes from the Guayanese town of Baritica with a population of around 4,000, on the river Essequibo, the nearest settlement to the Omai gold mine, the source of the cyanide.
He concluded: 'Please help us. This mine cannot be allowed to ruin our river." His appeal for help was backed by Brennel Archer, the Chairman of Baritica and of Region Seven, a local government area that includes the Omai mine. In a telephone interview he requested that sampling equipment be made urgently available to his people so they might know precisely how badly damaged their river is. Not only cyanide levels needs to be tested but also the levels of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead that are commonly found in effluent from gold mines. He felt they could not trust the reports from the mine.
The reports of these eyewitnesses contradict the report made this week by the independent Canadian consultant brought in to assess the damage. Dr. Harry Blakowitz, the President of Technitrol Eco-research, who stated in his "Preliminary Report on Cyanide contamination on the Tailings Spill -Omai" that "over a distance of approximately 80 miles in the Essequibo River no dead fish or animals were found". When I read this to Mr Carrington, he exclaimed: 'But even the local newspaper carried photographs of hundreds of dead fish.' Mr Archer added: 'This report is not true. I saw dying fish taken from the river by my town."
Dr Blakowitz suggested in his report that the fish has escaped harm because of their agility: "it is quite likely that during the initial spill ... fish may have avoided these potentially harmful concentrations by swimming out of the effluent plume." His optimism fits with reported statements from the Deputy General Manager, Claude Dumont, of the Canadian owned Omai Gold Mine that the damage was only 'peanuts'. But a film of the dam burst shown on the UK's Channel 4 last week revealed that it had produced a cataract surging over the whole width of the river that would have demanded of fish remarkable ability to evade.
The Balkowitz report stated that 3.4 million cubic metres of cyanide rich effluent were released from the mine site between Saturday August 19th and Thursday August 24th 1995. This volume is equivalent to nearly the entire contents of the mine's tailings ponds. It further reported that this water contained 25 to 30 parts per million of cyanide. The World Health Organisation safe limit for drinking water is 0.07 parts per million. The official US limit is 0.15 parts per million. At its peak, over a million gallons an hour was released which quadrupled the water volume of the Omai tributary before sweeping down into the vastly larger Essequibo River.
The report further states that the river waters did not fully mix for another 20 miles and that this could be clearly seen from the air as the mud from the tailings dam had colored the waters. However the eye witness accounts are of dead fish and a thick slick being seen for a further 100 miles downstream.
The Guyana government has now ordered that the river waters not be used by the local inhabitants for any other purpose than washing clothes. Chairman Archer told 'The American Reporter' that the river was their major source of water. They had even been forbidden to wash in it. Likewise they are not to eat its fish. Mr Carrington said: "the fish were beautiful to eat and very cheap before. Now we have to import our food." Barbados and Jamaica have suspended imports of Guyanese fish and shrimp.
Several months before the disaster, the company told the government that, because it had underestimated the amount of waste it would produce, it would need to build a second tailings dam and that, partly because of the cost of this, it would be unable to pay any of the royalties and taxes the government expected of them until the year 2002, just 3 years before the mine's planned closure date! This news had caused dismay in government circles. As Omai is the largest open cast gold mine in South America, the government had been led to expect a substantial tax contribution.
The subsequent pollution disaster has thus only added fuel to an already difficult relationship between company and government. Instead of being a source of revenues, the mine is now a cause of additional environmental expenditure for the government.
There have been warnings that this disaster was about to occur for some months. In March this year the operators of the mine warned that disposal of the waste water was a problem and prophetically suggested the mine might need to close in August if no other way was found to deal with the waste. A small spill occurred in March and in April the government had announced an investigation into whether company plans to discharge effluent into the river were environmentally sound.
Roger Moody, the Mining Advisor to the Amerindian People's Association of Guyana (APA) and the author of several works assessing the socio-economic impact of mining projects, was invited to Guyana last December by the APA who expressed concern about earlier reported pollution incidents at Omai, but he was unable to get permission to visit the site. He told me yesterday that 'the mine was hastily built, ill planned and an example of greed masquerading as the hope of a poor country."
Moody warned that the Canadian report on the presence of iron and copper forms of cyanide in the effluent indicated: "the presence of dangerous heavy metals, a hazard not previously mentioned". He noted that Technitro Eco-Research were only instructed to look at cyanide pollution but arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium are also common waste products in tailing effluent produced by gold mines. He explained: 'These pollutants are normally trapped in the sludge in tailings ponds but, given the force of the flood waters from the breached dam, some are almost certain to have been swept into the river. Any heavy metals so released would inflict greater damage than cyanide for they do not decay over time but instead are concentrated in fish and in the consumers of the fish.' The confirmation in the Balkowitz report that a mud plume from the dam could be seen for miles downstream amounts to a confirmation that any heavy metal pollutants in the mud were also released
The Canadian engineering company Knight Piesold hired by Omai Gold Mine to build the tailings dam were very embarrassed by being associated with the failure: "The company has built hundreds of tailings dams and this is the first time something has happened like this." However they believe that Omai further developed the tailings dam after they left the project, raising the walls from the 25 metres state Knight Piesold had designed to a height of 45 metres. The initial cyanide spill in May was reported as being due to a power failure which had prevented sluice gates from being closed. This suggests that the gates were already open at the time of the failure, perhaps for a deliberate controlled discharge of effluent.
Such a deliberate release is entirely plausible. Omai Mines had intended from the very first to release overflows from the polluted tailings dam into the river and had reported this intention in its original Environmental Impact Statement to the previous Guyanese government. The current government had it seems inherited a tacit agreement to this controlled release along with a 5 percent equity share in the mine.
It also now emerges that at the time the mine was designed and contracted, a major force in bringing the mine about was the Canadian mining investor Robert Friedland. Friedland was at that time in serious trouble because of his involvement in a gold mine's tailings dam disaster in the United States, that of Summitville, the most expensive such failure in the US in recent times. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that the final cost of clearing up the cyanide and heavy metal pollution at this mine will be in the order of $120 million. Friedland is still wanted for questioning by the EPA. Friedland moved after Summitville into the Omai mine through his vehicle Golden Star Resources. Golden Star Resources is now a 30% participant in the mine. Cambio of Canada own 60% and the Guyanese government 5%. Friedland is now believed to have sold his holding in the Omai mine and to have moved on to participate in establishing one of the world's biggest new gold mines at Lihir Island in Papua New Guinea.
The Guyanese government, in a move supported by the parliamentary opposition, has now forbidden the reopening of the Omai mine until a Commission of Inquiry has established the appropriate safety standards for this, the largest investment project in Guyana. Government sources do not expect the mine to reopen this year. The cost to the people, the virgin environment and the government, of this project has yet to be weighed up. A hoped-for eldorado has gone sour.
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