Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: The Albion Monitor has followed the "Cyanide River" disaster since it occurred last August, with the most recent report in May. Earlier stories can be found by following links in that article or by using the search options available from the front page.]

"Cyanide River" Company Makes Big Promises

by Bert Wilkinson

(IPS) GEORGETOWN, GUYANA -- Just about this time last year, production machines at the Omai Gold Mines, the glittering jewel in the crown of Guyana's revitalized economy ground to a halt.

This was three months after a dam holding 3 million cubic meters of cyanide-tainted mining waste broke at its seams several months after the firm had applied to the government for permission to deliberately contaminate the waterway, saying its waste dam was full. More than three million cubic meters of the slurry spilled into the Omai and Essequibo rivers.

For members of the local environmental movement, their worst fears were realized and for the Canadian-run company, Omai Gold Mines, its credibility with the government and Guyanese people was at its lowest ebb.

The spill killed fish and other marine life and discolored the larger Essequibo river for several weeks, forcing thousands of residents along the waterway to discontinue use of the rivers for domestic and commercial purposes.

If the firm gets its way, it will soon be ready to begin exploration on two adjacent sites

The situation has since changed, but residents still watch the river with some suspicion. The slightest discoloration triggers alarm bells in several communities.

In the days and weeks following the spill, opposition parties lambasted the government, demanding that the company responsible for the disaster be given the marching orders. The government turned a deaf ear to those demands, and today that same company is promising to put dollars into the authorities' coffers by a significant increase in production.

Last week the company commissioned a new processing mill in style, flying in journalists, government and opposition politicians and local businessmen to its mine site, 100 kilometers west of the city,

Managers wasted no time in pointing out that the new plant will not only increase ore processing by 50 percent to 20,000 tons daily, but also increase gold output by between 80,000 and 100,000 ounces annually.

"This will greatly increase our production and will benefit the economy of the country," said Public Relations Officer, Seeta Mohamed.

With the projected production increase, the company, owned by Cambior Inc. of Montreal, Canada, and Golden Star Resources of Denver in the United States, also seem set to increase its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), now running at around 25 percent.

Since 1991, it has contributed more than $150 million to the economy, excluding the millions it pays in royalties, taxes and social security benefits for its workforce of more than 1,000 -- 92 percent of whom are Guyanese, company officials say.

And if the firm gets its way, it will soon be ready to invest millions of dollars more by beginning exploration on two sites adjacent to the current main pit from which it could possibly mine up to 276,000 ounces of gold each year.

The present government, which has publicly stated its opposition to the gold mining deal which was negotiated by the previous administration -- the new government came to power in 1992 -- has proposals for developing the new sites on the desks of relevant ministers, but those proposals seem set to remain just where they are for a long time.

General manager of Omai, Rejean Gourde says current reserves will take production on for another 12 years, but this could increase with new ore finds.

"We believe there is a possibility that Omai's operations can be extended well beyond that time and with greater profitability and returns to Guyana by the discovery of more reserves. We eagerly anticipate an early announcement by government of its mineral policy," says Gourde.

Managers of the company are also promising not to make the same mistakes which led to the disaster more than a year ago. They say they are making sure to acquire equipment to improve safety and environmental standards, especially as they relate to the dilution of the cyanide content of mining waste which is discharged into the fast-flowing Essequibo river.

A new waste pit, replacing the one which collapsed, is now in use. Both company and government-appointed monitors supervised its construction which was a condition for its reopening after it was ordered closed following the disaster.

Company officials say the new mill could see production reaching a record 330,000 ounces per year. At the end of 1994 it had reached some 280,000 ounces.

"We want to establish ourselves as good corporate citizens with environmentally sound practices. We will continue to do so," says Gourde.

But there are many still to be convinced of the company's sincerity. After last year's spill, President Cheddi Jagan told residents of several areas who were directly affected that the company had lost its credibility and that Guyanese might find it difficult in future to believe any assurances given them by the firm.

Omai waited for one week before reporting the spill to government and only after there were press reports that Omai employees were burying dead fish before state scientists could get to the area.

Jagan also pointed to the fact that more than 30 miners had chosen to take the company to court to get compensation for loss of livelihood rather than negotiate individually with the firm. He noted that the miners no longer had faith in the company's assurances.

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Albion Monitor December 8, 1996 (

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