STATEMENT BY AMBASSADOR ODEEN ISHMAEL, PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE OF GUYANA TO THE ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN STATES (OAS), TO THE PERMANENT COUNCIL OF THE OAS - WASHINGTON DC, AUGUST 30, 1995 -
I wish to draw to the attention of the Permanent Council information relating to a major environmental mishap that has affected part of the Essequibo River, the largest river in Guyana. This resulted after massive leaks developed in the tailings pond dam of Omai Gold Mines Limited shortly before midnight on Saturday August 19, causing a discharge of tailings-pond effluent containing up to 28 parts per million (ppm) cyanide and 1 ppm copper into the Omai River, a tributary of the Essequibo River. Initial flow rates were estimated to be as much as 90,000 cubic meters per hour. By the time the flow was finally stopped on August 24, over 100 hours later it is estimated that some 4 million cubic meters of effluent entered the Omai River, a stream a few meters wide, and flowed along it for about a mile before entering the Essequibo River.
For the sake of relevance, I should mention that Omai Gold Mines Limited is a privately-owned entity headquartered in Canada. A Canadian company owns 60 percent of the shares while an American firm holds 35 percent; the Government of Guyana hold the remaining 5 percent. The gold mine which is located in the heart of Guyana is regarded as the largest on the South American continent. Cyanide is used to separate gold in the mining process.
The Government of Guyana is indeed alarmed that this spillage should occur at OMAI Gold Mines Limited (OGML), just three months after the first reported spillage of this kind at the same site. At the time that relatively smaller spill was contained, the company insisted that corrective measures were put in place and that there would be no recurrence.
Guyana is concerned that these spills have potentially disastrous implications for the lives of people and for the marine and biological life in our major rivers systems.
Immediately upon learning of the spill, the Guyana Government took the following steps:
Government dispatched a special team to the OMAI site for an independent assessment of the situation. A special monitoring team which included regional authorities was established at Bartica, a town located 75 miles downstream from Omai. Water and mud samples were taken, and are still being taken, in the area downstream along the Essequibo River to determine the toxicity of the river water. Samples of fish and other marine life were kept, and are still being kept, for scientific investigation. The Ministry of Health dispatched its own team to the affected areas. And mechanism have been put in place to prevent the sale and consumption of fish caught in the river areas between Omai and Bartica. Steps were also taken to inform the Amerindian and other communities in those areas of the disaster and the need to take precautionary measures. A general appeal was made to citizens of these areas, including the Amerindian villages, not to drink water or consume fish or other substances from the Omai or Essequibo Rivers within the affected area.
The Guyana Government also put the following measures in train:
It is imperative to note that Guyana needs to monitor the environmental impact of economic activities, especially in its rainforest area. The Omai spillage has now brought home to all that a general review of the situation is urgent.
It is clear that the effects of this crisis will severely affect the economy of the country, as gold is a significant contributor to Guyana's robust growth rate. But this is not the Guyana Government's main concern right now. The focus is to protect the Guyanese people and the environment.
The Guyana Government is concerned about the impact of mining on the local environment. The Environmental Unit at the Office of the President, along with friendly local agencies, has been steadfastly at work in setting up mechanisms for independent monitoring of activities at OMAI and other mining sites, where environmental protection must be ensured.
But the cost of these activities are not immediately within our means and that is why it would seem to be taking longer than the situation demands.
President Cheddi Jagan in a major address to the Guyanese nation on August 22 touched on the issue of foreign investment and its effects on the environment. he said: "My government has time and again expressed concerns over the investments made before the PPP/Civic took office. From various quarters came severe criticisms and accusations that my government is not in favor of foreign investments. I want to repeat that our developing economy needs more investments to come. I also want to repeat that when the investors come, we will ensure that they respect our people, our laws and our environment."
President Jagan, during his speech, declared the 50-mile stretch of the contaminated Essequibo River an environmental disaster zone. He also announced immediate and favorable responses to appeals by the Government for international assistance to what he said was a continuing "dangerous situation". He said that Omai must bear full responsibility for the accident.
RESOLUTION BY PARLIAMENT
On August 24, the Guyana Parliament unanimously approved a resolution placing full responsibility on Omai Gold Mines Limited for the cyanide spill. The resolution also declared the following:
The area up to 50 miles down river would be regarded as an environmental disaster zone. Full scale resources must be mounted to protect the human and natural environment. An environmental audit fully financed by Omai would be done to determine the extent of the cleanup required. A Commission of Inquiry would be set up to investigate the cause of the disaster and make recommendations on preventive measures to be taken by Omai to minimize the exposure to the environment if unexpected, unforeseen events occur. Omai operations would remain closed to allow for the cleanup, the audit and the Commission of Inquiry. Operations would only recommence on the basis of an examination of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry and the environmental audit.
REPORT OF PAHO/WHO ADVISER
From the beginning of this mishap, Government agencies and Omai Gold Mines Limited instituted both joint and separate extensive sampling and analyses along the Essequibo River. The hope was that the huge flow along the Essequibo River might dilute the cascading poisonous effluent stream and keep levels just below toxic levels.
Among the first of the International Experts to arrive in response to the Guyana Government's call for help was engineer Ton Vlugman, PAHO/WHO Health and Environment Adviser. On August 25 he submitted a preliminary report on his visit to Bartica, a township of 10,000 people about 75 miles downstream from Omai and a boatride up to Omai. He arrived at the following conclusions:
Concerning the current situation, latest available samples and analyses taken on August 27 show that cyanide levels have dropped to below detection point from Omai to Bartica, but levels then rise to 0.022ppm at Stampa, about 10 miles downstream from Bartica, falling again to below detection at Parika, at the mouth of the Essequibo River. Preliminary conclusions by international experts who carried out tests show that cyanide contamination at various points were below the level of 0.07 ppm accepted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and 0.2 ppm accepted by the Canadian authorities.
There have been a number of reported sightings of fish kills and dead animals in the Essequibo River but these are still to be confirmed.
The immediate danger from the massive cyanide leaks from the tailings dam has passed. The Government is arranging for extensive sampling at various depths across a number of sections of the Essequibo River to ensure that no pockets of cyanide polluted water remain.
The situation is under constant observation by a number of agencies including the Ministry of health, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of trade, Tourism and Industry, the Office of the Prime Minister, the Office of the President as well as non-governmental organizations.
Focus is being placed now on a clean up and restoration of areas more than transiently affected. Expectations are that effects will be limited to perhaps 1 mile of the Omai River and a few hundred meters along the Essequibo River.
FISH EXPORTS NOT CONTAMINATED
One of the economic setbacks of the cyanide spill is that two sister Caribbean countries, Jamaica and Barbados, have restricted fish and shrimp imports from Guyana.
I take this opportunity to state that such bans are totally unwarranted and unfortunate, and they contravene the principles of free trade within CARICOM. I want to reassure all nations that there is no hazard to fresh fish and shrimp exported from Guyana since:
I) Less than 1% if any, of the fish and shrimp exported are caught along the Essequibo River and its discharge. ii) The Guyana Government had immediately put an embargo on fishing on the Essequibo River essentially nearly all of which is used locally. iii) Levels of cyanide contamination never reached toxic levels along the river.
Guyana catches its fish for export from the Atlantic Ocean and as far away on the eastern border with Suriname, a distance of more than 300 miles from the Omai Gold Mines spill, and the North West area, a distance of more than 200 miles. Some fish exports are also obtained from inland creeks and savannah areas, far removed from the Essequibo River. One must bear in mind that Guyana, in terms of the Caribbean, relatively speaking, is a huge country.
In addition, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Industry have instructed that all exports of fish be tested for contamination which can be further rechecked by the importing countries. It is clear that there is no threat to health from fish exports originating from Guyana.
Among the organizations asked to help in containing the contamination are the United Nations, the OAS, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization.
Guyana is also receiving assistance from a number of Governments to contain this disaster and to assist in preventive measures. Scientists from Canada and the USA are currently in the area and are assisting in testing. The Government of Venezuela has sent three scientists to advise to the Government on dam engineering and environmental protection.
Although the water contamination is greatly reduced, there is still need to monitor the long term effects on the environment caused by the cyanide spill. So far, no effective tests have been carried out on the soils on the river banks and on the animal and plant life in the area. As such, Guyana requests assistance from friendly countries in the form of experts and equipment for the following:
Expertise is required to deal with spills disaster and clean up of toxic waste; dam construction; analysis of water quality and cyanide testing; health testing; and auditing the environmental impact. I am sure that under the spirit of horizontal cooperation, friendly member countries of the OAS and other international organizations will help to identify specialists and provide us with much needed equipment to deal with the current problem.
On behalf of the Government of Guyana, I extend sincere thanks to all Governments, institutions, agencies, firms and individuals, international and local, who sent expressions of regret and offers of help; and will be pursuing assistance to support the environment audit, cleanup and restoration, the Commission of Enquiry into the failure of the dam and subsequent events, as well as considerations of process modifications, additional preventive measures, and monitoring which should be implemented for the restart of the operations of Omai Gold Mines Limited.