"We are in no position to properly monitor what is happening at the mine"
(IPS) GEORGETOWN -- The owners of the Omai Gold Mines have finally won parliamentary approval to restart mining following a major chemical spill last August, but environmentalists say they have serious reservations about the decision.
"I am God-sure that we are in no position to properly monitor what is happening at the mine site," said Fr Malcolm Rodrigues, head of the Environmental Studies Unit at the University of Guyana.
"Unless we employ Guyanese and others who know about the local conditions on the ground, we could have more problems," says Eusi Kwayana, a co-leader of the militant opposition Working Peoples Alliance (WPA).
The panel found the mine's operators responsible for the accident but saw no justification in keeping the plant closed
At the center
of the issue is last night's overwhelming parliamentary approval of a government motion allowing Omai, the second largest gold mining operation on the South American continent, to restart mining at the "earliest possible opportunity."
Critics of the parliamentary decision believe that all is not yet in place for the mine to begin operations.
The WPA, one of the groups opposing the authorization, is upset that engineers with years of knowledge of Guyana's soil behavior, were not involved in the planning and building of a new waste storage pond to supplement the one which broke under pressure so spectacularly last summer.
The original tailings pond broke mid-August dumping about three million cubic meters of cyanide-tainted waste into two important Guyanese rivers.
Parliament immediately voted to shut down the mine and supported the government's appointment of three separate commissions of enquiry.
The Environmental Audit and Socio-Economic Committee recommended that the firm be prevented from discharging any waste into the nearby Omai River, until relevant government agencies are properly equipped to monitor the plant's operations.
By agreement, waste stored in the tailings pond can be released into the river at intervals providing its toxicity level is low.
The major commission of enquiry found the mine's operators responsible for the accident but saw no justification in keeping the plant closed.
Critics point to the mine's assurance last May that the tailings pond was sound
government has long assured Guyanese that Omai would remain unopened until a series of corrective measures are implemented. These include the building of a hydrogen peroxide plant, the presentation of a new environmental impact statement and independent certification of the new waste pond under construction.
But the mine, located 180 km southwest of this capital city, is one the country's most important foreign investments. Since it opened in early 1993, gold production has almost quadrupled to some 280,000 ounces.
The mine's sudden closure after the accident contributed to a 1.4 percent reduction in the GDP target for 1995, say state officials.
The company is owned by Cambior Inc. of Montreal, Canada and Golden Star Resources of Denver, Colorado, and directly employs more than 1,000 persons, the majority of them Guyanese.
The local green movement, aware of the importance of Omai to the government's development plans, has always been wary of what it calls the administration's haste to permit a mining resumption. Environmentalists complain about the state's inability to properly monitor the mine's operations.
But Prime Minister Sam Hinds, who moved the motion for an Omai restart says a monitoring program which will entail three state representatives on site at the mine for at least the first year after its reopening, will soon be formalized.
The government gave its permission for the mine to reopen just one week after its operators presented an environmental impact statement outlining corrective steps and the company's environmental policy.
Ordinary Guyanese are unimpressed.
Critics point to the mine's assurance last May after a minor chemical spill, that the tailings pond was sound and that such an accident would never again occur. By August, the sound pond had collapsed.
Rodrigues says no one is sure that "what Omai puts in environmental statements is what obtains on the ground. We have no data base on which to work on, we are not sure about monitoring of water and heavy metals and there is no level of hazard preparation for residents along the rivers."
A community of 15,000 people live some 120 km downstream of the mine and they have been traumatized by the chemical spill.
"Those foreign engineers don't know much about Guyana's soil. We would prefer our own Guyanese engineers to pass judgement on any pond or dam before we are comfortable," says Kwayana.
The WPA also wants tests for ground water contamination both from the collapsed pond and the one currently being built.
"Someone needs to prepare riverine people about the potential for mishaps, someone needs to draft an evacuation plan and educate people fully about the project," the opposition party says.
Hinds says riverine residents will be integrated into a disaster preparedness plan.
"Certainly this experience leaves us now, nearly six months later, somber and sober. Guyana has been bruised but not battered, not broken, but I think it is certainly one of the events that would bring a coming of age our people and nation," waxed Hinds.
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