Albion Monitor /News

[Editor's note: See our previous edition for more background on this story.]

Eyewitnesses Report on Rainforest Cyanide Disaster

by Jan Roberts

"This mine cannot be allowed to ruin our river"

(AR) LONDON, England -- "Last week 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. The whole river turned brown," Leon Carrington, one of the few eyewitness to the Omai gold mine cyanide disaster in Guyana, told American Reporter News Bureau on his arrival in London last night.

The river before the spill "was so rich," he said. "It is about a mile wide. It was full of fine fish. Its waters were naturally black from the rain forests. It had giant otters, dolphins, porpoises. It flowed down between the mountains through the forest. Jaguars, deer, monkeys, all drunk from it."

"When I traveled 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," he continued. "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 Bartica on the Essequibo River, 60 miles south of the Omai gold mine, the source of the cyanide.

"Please help us," he appealed. "This mine cannot be allowed to ruin our river." His appeal for help was backed by Brennel Archer, the political leader of Bartica, a town of 15,000, and of Region 7, a local government entity that includes the Omai mine.

Eyewitness account contradicts official report of no damage

In a telephone interview Carrington asked that sampling equipment be made available to the Guyanese on an urgency basis so they can know precisely how badly damaged their river is. Not only cyanide levels needs to be tested, he said, but also the levels of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead that are commonly found in effluent from gold mines. He said many people felt reports from the mine's owners could not be trusted.

The eyewitness account contradicts the report made last week by the independent Canadian consultant brought in to assess the damage and another by the Pan American Health Organization, both of which minimized the damage. American chemists say the amount of cyanide measured in the water was not sufficient to cause death in humans, and would quickly evaporate.

Dr. Harry Blakowitz, president of Technitrol Eco-Research, in a prelimary report on the spill, said that "over a distance of approximately 80 miles in the Essequibo River, no dead fish or animals were found" in the area around Bartica.

"But even the local newspaper carried photographs of hundreds of dead fish," Carrington responded.

"This report is not true. I saw dying fish taken from the river by my town," said Archer, the Bartica official. The Associated Press reported shoals of dead fish and dead hogs floating in the 600-mile-long river near Bartica on August 22.

Reports of dead fish floating 80 miles downstream

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 assessment matches that of the deputy general manager of the mine, Claude Dumont, who characterized the damage as "peanuts."

But a film of the dam burst shown on Britain's Channel 4 last week showed a cataract surging over the whole width of the river that would have been difficult for fish to evade.

The Balkowitz report stated that 3.4 million cubic meters, or 900 million gallons, of cyanide-laced water was released from the mine site between Saturday August 19th and Thursday August 24th, or nearly the entire contents of the mine's tailings ponds, and that this water contained 25 to 30 parts per million of cyanide.

The World Health Organization sets the safe limit for drinking water at 0.07 parts per million. Guyanese officials in Washington said the natives in the region drink rain water, not river water. The official U.S. safe limit is 0.15 parts per million. At its peak, over a million gallons a minute was released, quadrupling 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 then could be clearly seen from the air as the mud from the tailings dam changed the color of the water. However, the eyewitness accounts of dead fish report them floating another 60 miles downstream.

The Guyana government has 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 News Bureau 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.

"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.

"The mine was hastily built, ill planned and an example of greed masquerading as hope"

It also emerges that there is another side to the mining company's claim that the Guyanese government is using the disaster to claim money from the company.

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 partly because of the cost would be unable to pay any royalties and taxes to the government until the year 2002, just three years before the mine's is expected to close. The news had reportedly caused dismay in government circles. As Omai is the largest open pit gold mine in South America, the government expected it to contribute substantially to its revenues.

The disaster only added fuel to an already difficult relationship. Instead of being a source of revenues, the mine is now a cause of more environmental expenditures for the government, whose foreign debt sometimes consumes as much as 70 percent of its tax revenues.

There have been warnings of a disaster in the making for months. In March, 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 May and in June the government 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.

He was unable to get permission to visit the site. He told American Reporter News Bureau yesterday that "the mine was hastily built, ill planned and an example of greed masquerading as the hope of a poor country." The mine is a subsidiary of Invesco, Inc., a Denver, Colorado-based mutual fund giant. Among that company's outside directors is the CEO of Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.

Heavy metal pollution not considered

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 was 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.

"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," he explained. "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 observation 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, he said.

The Canadian engineering company Knight Piesold hired by Omai Gold Mine to build the tailings dam say they 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," a company spokesman said. However, the firm believes that Omai further developed the tailings dam after Knight Piesold 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 in its original Environmental Impact Statement to the previous Guyanese government. The current government apparently inherited a tacit agreement to this controlled release, along with a five percent equity share in the mine.

A major force in bringing the mine to reality was Canadian mining investor Robert Friedland, who at the time was reeling from a gold mine's tailings dam disaster at Summitville, Indiana, the most expensive such failure in the U.S. in recent times.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that the final cost of clearing up the cyanide and heavy metal pollution at the Summitville mine will be about $120 million. Friedland is still wanted for questioning by the EPA.

After the Summitville disaster, Friedlan invested in Omai Gold Mines Ltd. through Golden Star Resources, the subsidiary of Canadian-based Cambior, Inc. and Invesco, which operates a $9 billion mutual fund specialized in high-risk securities from "emerging nations." Golden Star Resources is now a 35 participant participant in the mine. Friedland is now believed to have sold his holding in the Omai mine and to have moved on to establishing one of the world's largest new gold mines on Lihir Island in Papua New Guinea.

The Guyanese government, supported by the parliamentary opposition, has now forbidden the Omai mine to reopen until a Commission of Inquiry has established the appropriate safety standards for it. The largest investment project in Guyana is expected to reopen in six months.

Jan Roberts is correspondent for The American Reporter and an investigative reporter and producer based in London.

Albion Monitor September 18, 1995 (

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