The big spill nine years after
Oscar P. Clarke Stabroek News - Georgetown September 2004
Nine years after cyanide-laced effluent spilled into the Essequibo River from the Omai River following an Omai Gold Mines Ltd (OGML) tailings pond failure, life in the area has generally resumed its normal course with residents freely using water from the Essequibo, once deemed a dangerous exercise.
And as OGML prepares to wrap up its gold-mining operations in that area by next year, environmentalists, while cognisant of what might have been, consider that the spill resulted in some good since it brought such issues to the fore and saw the stiffening of environmental laws.
Meanwhile, settlement of a lawsuit filed against the company following the spill on behalf of some 200-odd affected riverain residents continues. XXX learned that the out-of-court settlement at an average of $50,000 per person started two years ago.
On Sunday, August 21, 1995 effluent from a ruptured tailings pond at the giant interior mining facility poured uncontrollably into the Omai River and subsequently into the Essequibo. It is today still considered the country's most serious environmental accident.
However, this was not the first time that cyanide-laced tailings had managed to find its way into the neighbouring waterways; there had been a spill a mere three months earlier.
Unlike the magnitude of the August spill, the one in May of the same year received little mention although murky tailings were evident in the Omai River. Indeed that minor spill was not reported to government for six days.
Attempts to obtain a detailed response from OGML proved futile. When contacted, OGML Communications Officer Sita Mohamed said the spill's memory was not something the company wished to make a fuss about.
It was a bleak day for the gold-mining entity. OGML, with its up-to-date laboratory facilities and monitoring to ensure adherence to standards, had held itself up as a beacon in the local mining industry. The 'cyanide spill' as it became known changed all that and as far as riverain residents were concerned, made the name Omai synonymous with poison.
In relation to OGML's end-of-operations preparations Mohamed said a detailed closure plan had been submitted both to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC). OGML is currently awaiting comments on the document from the latter.
However, a recent corporate update from Omai's parent company Cambior Inc said that increase in mineral reserves in the Fennel pit and production delays during the rainy season will push production from the pit onto year end; well beyond the planned August closure.
Current production from the pit is being complemented with low-grade hard rock ore from stockpile. According to the release some 3.7 million tonnes at 0.9 g Au/t will remain to be processed in the first nine months of 2005 for a production of 100,000 ounces of gold.
Current gold production initially forecast at 234,000 ounces is not estimated to reach some 240,000 ounces.
Former EPA Director of Environmental Management Unit Dr David Singh in a recent interview confirmed that such a plan had been furnished to the EPA.
According to Singh this plan has from time to time been regularly updated to keep it consistent with changing trends of environmental safety and other implications.
Shock and horror
At the time of the spill, Singh was employed at the University of Guyana as a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Unit (ESU). He had played a critical role in gathering samples and testing the immediate environment in the aftermath of the disaster.
Singh vividly recalls the early Sunday morning call some time around 6 am from Presidential Adviser on the Environment, Navin Chandarpal informing him about an accident at Omai and asking him to be part of a delegation that would visit the mines that morning.
"At that time I was unaware of the magnitude of the spill. [It was not] until [we were] airborne that a little more information was released," Singh said.
And it was only then that the possibility of cyanide-contaminated material flowing into the Essequibo River as a result of a breach had been raised.
Singh remembered that other members of the team aboard the aircraft that morning included William Woolford from GGMC as well as Hilbert Shields of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA).
The magnitude of the situation was revealed as the aircraft neared the mining facility. The team's first glimpse of the situation was reddish, murky water cascading out of the damaged pond into the Omai River. Singh recalled his shock and horror at seeing the murky fluid.
However, he noted the company's efforts to channel some of the tailings water into the Fennel pit as a temporary measure to reduce some of the spillage from the damaged pond. Fluid in the tailings pond had been high mainly because of the increased volume of rainfall in the area, which seemed to have added stress to an already strained pond. It subsequently broke under pressure.
On the ground, Singh said, the team was better able to survey the area while being briefed by Omai officials, which allowed a clearer picture of what exactly occurred.
"Up to this point my knowledge of mining, it effects and the use of cyanide was fairly academic," Singh said.
He said once apprised of the situation, the team moved to swiftly establish efforts to monitor it. "This was done at two levels, the monitoring of the water samples from various points in the river along with the receipt of hourly reports from the company," Singh said.
He recalled data being faxed into the University of Guyana's ESU where it was manually placed onto charts and used as a guide to plot levels of contamination at various points in the river.
"For two weeks after the spill it was mostly round-the-clock work for personnel from the unit who apart from engaging in their usual work during the day undertook to collect and manually map data onto a spread sheet to determine the trends of the spill and its consequences," Singh said.
Not all personnel at the university were keen on being involved as no official directive had been given but a lot of help was received from the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST) as well as final-year Environmental Studies students. Many assisted in collecting samples for testing by the unit.
Singh also recalled the IAST head's responsiveness to requests for assistance along with his willingness to put the agency's resources, though lacking, at the disposal of the ESU.
"Omai stepped in and gave us some chemicals and other instruments to allow us to undertake our own tests," he said. According to Singh, each of the tests took six hours and was extremely difficult. Sampling was being done on an hourly basis and the tests followed a two-step approach each of which took three hours.
So as to better understand the effects of cyanide, particularly on people in the event they came into contact with the contaminated water, detailed research was done on its properties and effects. This was done using the spill as an example and focusing on the amount of cyanide that would have been contained in the spilled tailings, rather than raw cyanide.
According to the environmentalist, a week after the spill, a rigorous sampling campaign was done on the Essequibo River at various points, starting from the Omai River.
Meanwhile, government had declared the situation an environmental disaster and harnessed all resources to deal with it. According to Singh, who joined the staff of Iwokrama last year as acting adviser on Resource Management and Training, it was this, which showed government's keenness on stressing the importance of environmental concerns.
Singh, who was also involved as consultant on the review committee to oversee Omai's implementation of the necessary corrective measures noted that cyanide does not stick around as is the case with other substances used in mining including metal and mercury.
However long-time advocate Judith David who stridently fought on behalf of residents of riverain communities all the way to the courts said some are still feeling the effects of the spill nine years after it severely affected their livelihood.
According to David the compensation given by Omai was an insult, bearing in mind the effects of the spill and the fact that government had declared the area a national disaster.
She alluded to a similar occurrence in Canada in a lake where a small cyanide spill led to the closure of the water body permanently.
However within ten days of the spill the Essequibo River was declared safe of contaminants, David said. This she said occurred despite clear evidence that there were effects on the food chain including dead poultry, fish, and wild animals among other things.
Even today the fish family in the river has never developed the way it was prior to the spill, David said.
David a resident of Bartica recalled awaking on the day of the spill to find discoloured water all around. Regional Chairman at the time Brentnol Archer informed them that there had been a cyanide spill at Omai and that they needed to refrain from using the water, she said, and the message was also sent to riverain communities. According to David people were affected in different ways and she feels Cambior and Omai never disclosed the truth with respect to the cyanide spill including the effects of other particles apart from the deadly poison.
She also demanded to know in the interest of the communities, what is contained in the Omai closure plan. "The plan needs to be made public so that we will see what will happen after the mine closes," David said. David was also not satisfied with the way the court had dealt with the Omai matter, which she said is still pending up to today.
Singh was of the opinion that the spill resulted in more good than harm since it facilitated the development of a stringent environmental mechanism, while nurturing greater focus on like issues.
He felt that only certain pockets of the population focus on the environment, which is more of an urban rather than a rural problem than people make it out to be.
"In one sense the spill woke us up as it was the necessary antidote that helped in the framing of the Environmental Protection Act and also the Iwokrama Act both legislated on and passed shortly after the incident," he said.
Singh saw the spill as the required medicine needed to jump-start the whole environmental movement, which he sees as still focused merely on the hinterland and not catching the broader attention of society.
Singh also does not think that any long-lasting effects are evident from the spill especially since the cyanide was mixed with other chemicals making it less reactive.
He felt that any cyanide, if it remained, had either been washed away with the moving tide into the open seas or settled below heaps of deposits in sections of the Essequibo River.
Cyanide, from a technical standpoint, is a chemical whose immediate effects could be catastrophic but once this initial phase is overcome it is less likely to be lethal.
Omai's submission to the EPA setting out detailed plans for the area once mining is over also drew some comment from Singh. He noted its continued revision as more information becomes available.
Among the details articulated in the plan, is how the property is to be protected from incursion particularly from small miners interested in exploring the contents of the tailings pond.
The plan also features continued monitoring of cyanide levels in the ponds as they depreciate to acceptable levels to facilitate discharge into the nearby waterways.
However Singh's main concern is about OGML walking away without leaving money in escrow to enable government to take care of the environment at the mining facility.
And he sees it as sad if the property is allowed to be engulfed by the surrounding jungle instead of being used as a training ground for young people, a plan articulated by Major General (rtd) Joseph Singh.
"It could also be used as a tour site to which visitors interested in seeing what a mine location looks like can go," Singh said.
Singh was also concerned about the upkeep of the Linden/Mabura Road link with the impending winding down of OGML's operations. The mainly laterite surface has been maintained by the mining firm as a means of accessing its mine site.
However, once operations have wound up there would no longer be a need for OGML to continue to shell out money to maintain the road.
But there were varied accounts of the events that led to government's declaration of the spill as a national disaster.
According to a normally reliable source, the spill initially appeared to be of little importance. However, once its magnitude became evident, there was a knee-jerk reaction, with officials scrambling to respond in an ad-hoc fashion.
Several years ago the EPA had termed efforts by OGML to improve its environmental management as steady. One of the main matters coming out of the cyanide waste spill was the construction of a new tailings pond. Then operations director of the EPA, Denise Fraser, had told this newspaper that based on the experience of the old tailings pond, careful examination had to be done of the new design.
An Environmental Impact Assessment was done for the new dam and was approved by the EPA.
A discharge criterion for the effluent was set and a contingency plan, which lays out the risks involved and the responses in the event of any incident, had to be established by the company.
The EPA is responsible for overseeing regular soil and water sampling including other forms of testing. Results of EPA tests are normally compared to those of OGML to check for disparities and to determine whether they comply with the strict criteria set by the monitoring agency.
OGML, XXX understands, does day-to-day monitoring and is in regular contact with the EPA, for which it prepares a monthly report. Every two months, meetings comprising representatives of the GGMC, OGML and the EPA are held to review the company's activities.
The EPA and GGMC had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which set out how the two agencies would work together on environmental matters.
Surveys of the aquatic life in the area affected by the spill done by University of Guyana scientists in 1998 had concluded that life had returned to normal. "There were no long-lasting effects. There now are mechanisms in place to prevent another spill. These mechanisms are systematically being built up. The likelihood of a recurrence is very small," former EPA Director Per Bertilsson had said.
Some new stipulations installed after the spill included an environmental monitoring plan and a contingency plan for the larger operations. One beneficial aspect of the whole incident was that Guyanese professionals were involved in the decision-making process, Dr Singh had told XXX
Previously, leading up to the investment, OGML had autonomy in this process and the local technical people were not called upon for their contributions.
"Prior to the incident, information just filtered down to us. We were not allowed any technical input. The spill provided a watershed for a large number of environmental issues to come to the fore," Dr Singh had said.
The spill led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Act, which was immediately placed on the front burner and was enacted the following year.
After the spill, Omai volunteered US$100,000 in equipment to refurbish the Environmental Testing Laboratory at IAST.
The number two tailings pond was a part of the terms of resumption agreed between OGML and the government.
Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against OGML after the spill. The majority of the court proceedings were filed by persons living in the areas affected by the slurry, which wended its way down the Essequibo River.
Attorney-at-law Moses Bhagwan had lodged over 200 claims against the company on behalf of clients. He began to institute legal proceedings against OGML not long after the spill. Claims consisted of those filed by loggers, hunters, farmers, traders, miners, and fishermen.
Bhagwan had said for the period the area had been declared a disaster zone, many persons lost income because they could not have carried on normal economic activities. "Life for many has never been the same," the lawyer had said.
Discussions were initiated with lawyers representing the insurers of the company, Bhagwan said, and a process to deal with all the claims was agreed upon. He revealed that the parties involved were close to a full settlement following a meeting in Miami three years ago. However, this fell through when a class-action suit was filed around the same time by Recherches Internationales Quebec in Canada.
The group had filed on behalf of 23,000 persons. A court in Canada subsequently declined jurisdiction.
"Since the negotiation mechanism was disrupted, the process [became] tedious, painful and generally unproductive," Bhagwan said.
However, settlement was finally reached and the process of paying the 200-odd respondents who Bhagwan represented, his secretary said, was ongoing.
Meanwhile, members of the Independent Commission of Inquiry established to lobby on behalf of residents in affected riverain communities through their new chairman, a US-based attorney, are seeking to reopen the Omai cyanide spill case in Canada.
To this end, a signature campaign has been launched at Bartica and within riverain communities, correspondence from the commission recently said.
However in the correspondence the commission's Secretary Mohamed Kalamadeen alluded to OGML's satisfactory dealings with residents in the affected communities. "Residents can raise their head and say that Omai had indeed honoured their promises and commitments," Kalamadeen said.
He also congratulated Omai on its achievement of being the first South American mining company to attain the ISO-1400 Standard pointing out that achieving that level of certification is not easy.
He said Omai has been working along with various riverain communities while constructing health centres at Fort Island, Rockstone, Agatash with another being built in the middle Mazaruni.
This apart, the company has always responded positively to requests for medical outreach visits to several riverain communities. It has also responded positively to education by contributing to the facilitation of the Bartica Secondary School computer lab among other things.
A recent release from Omai alluded to the soon to be completed health and community centre at Aliki. They have also assisted the Rockstone community by enclosing the incomplete headmistress building to house two teachers in the area.
No reason for hype
Today OGML is adamant that there is no long-term effect. Life has returned to normal, it says, and there is no reason for the hype, which surrounded the spill.
"The impact of the spill was not what was originally thought," OGML's Human Resources Manager, Norman McLean had told Stabroek News some time ago.
McLean said the people got "carried away" over the discolouration of the Essequibo River during the spill. But this was as a result of the saprolite used in the construction of the tailings dam, which was also washed away.
The reddish-brown colour, which overpowered the Omai River and part of the Essequibo, is associated with the use of cyanide. This was what had everyone concerned over the perceived level of the poison in the waterways. The company said the cyanide concentration in the Essequibo River was way below the level for drinking water standards.
Mechanisms were put in place before the company resumed operations on February 4, 1996, to prevent any recurrence of a spill. The effluent treatment plant and the holding pond were originally in the company's plans before the spill but were installed afterwards. A new spigotting method was also adopted and the design of the tailings pond changed.
Omai also had an environmental programme in place before the spill. This was one of the requirements of the lending institutions before credit is approved.
"Once you're gonna borrow money from the banks internationally you have to come up with an environmental impact statement and you have to have a programme for the environment," McLean had asserted.
Three committees were set up to conduct studies on the impact of the spill. They were the process review committee, tailings dam committee and the environment audit committee.
The first committee examined the process used by the company to extract gold and the feasibility of alternative methods but concluded that the use of cyanide was the best and least costly.
"The committee established quite clearly that there was no other process which is better than the use of cyanide [in extracting gold]," McLean said.
Ninety-five per cent of the gold produced in the world is done so by the use of cyanide. The other five per cent is produced by mercury, XXX understands. Mercury, unlike cyanide, is not biodegradable and it was found that the latter is safer and more economical to use.
There were several features added to the new tailings pond. The company employed a new technique called spigotting. Using this method, all the waste material coming from the mill enters the dam via a pipe, which empties the gravel and cyanide-laced water into a perforated pipe that is installed in the tailings pond.
This pipe is movable and is positioned in various areas around the pond so that the solution coming out of the mill is distributed in an even manner throughout the pond. The result leaves the dam with a beach-like effect.
The new dam is three times the size of the failed tailings dam. It is built entirely with compacted saprolite unlike the former one which had three tiers comprising of, first, a rip-rap design, then a filter followed by the saprolite.
The government has approved the discharge of effluent into the holding pond at 700 gallons per minute. The effluent from the tailings dam is channelled to the holding pond where it is tested to determine the cyanide concentration before being discharged in the Essequibo River.
McLean had noted that the Omai location experienced heavy precipitation, which causes a build-up of water in the tailings pond, hence the approved rate of discharge. However, the company discharges at a rate of 400 gallons per minute. Unlike any other gold mine in the world OGML has to satisfy the discharge criteria as established in the United States, Guyana and Canada collectively.
For Canada, there is an end of pipe criterion. This means that the material coming out of the gold mill should not contain more than 1.5 parts per million (ppm) of cyanide.
In the US there is the receiving water criterion where the effluent discharged into waterways has to be done ensuring that the area 100 metres below the discharge point is not more than 5.2 parts per billion of cyanide.
In Guyana's case, the government has implemented a loading factor of not more than 25 kilogrammes of cyanide per day to be discharged into the waterways. From the holding pond, the effluent is discharged into the Essequibo River through a diffuser. The diffuser is 200 metres long and the effluent is pumped through 200 port holes in the diffuser pipe.
The effluent treatment plant was constructed at a cost of some US$3 million to treat waste before its discharge into the Essequibo River. In the plant, hydrogen peroxide, ferric sulphate and caustic soda are used to break down cyanide.
Because of the effect of sunlight on the mill waste in the tailings pond, natural degradation of the cyanide occurs. If for any reason the material from the mill is more than the 1.5 ppm limit, it would be channelled to the effluent treatment plant to be broken down before being discharged.
Ferric sulphate is used in the effluent treatment plant to clear up the solution, which McLean boasted is coming out of the plant like purified water.
The EPA conducts monthly checks at the Omai operation and samples the 38 wells at the mining site.
Checks are made for permeation of the wells and for the existence of cyanide. Checks are also made for iron and copper content in the water.
The samples are split between the company and the EPA so that the results could be compared.
After the spill, a Commission of Enquiry was established to conduct a probe into the incident and make recommendations. Three committees were appointed to investigate various aspects of the incident. They were the Environmental Audit and Socio-Economic Assessment Committee, the Process Review Committee, and the Dam Review Committee. The committees came up with recommendations following investigations.
Fraser said the company had to comply with the recommendations for it to be still in operation today. This was done and more, she said.