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 February. Earlier stories can be found by following links in that article.]

Guyana to Examine Gold Mining Damage

by Bert Wilkinson

Large quantities of mercury used by about 20,000 small and medium scale miners

(IPS) GEORGETOWN -- One quiet Sunday morning last August, Guyanese awoke to the news that a dam, holding 30 months of cyanide-tainted mining waste had collapsed, dumping more than three million cubic meters of effluent into the Essequibo, the country's most important river.

The panic that followed the environmental disaster at the Canadian-run Omai Gold Mines Ltd. in western Guyana, provided the country with a crucial lesson: if it is encouraging foreign investment in the mining industry, it had better have the capability to monitor the investor's activities.

Since the August 18 spill, both government and the company have moved to implement new measures. Storage pond designs have been re-worked and tougher environmental legislation is in parliament for expected routine approval.

But while the country's collective vexation has focused on Omai, the continued abuse of large quantities of mercury by the brigade of about 20,000 small and medium scale miners has gone largely unnoticed.

Mining has ballooned over the years as illegal miners enter the country

But things appear to be changing. Recently a private station, TV Channel-9 brought the matter into the living rooms of Guyanese when it showed footage of several heavily sedimented interior rivers. The aerial footage was shot by commercial pilot Miles Williams, a part-time environmental buff.

While the footage did not show actual mercury contamination, it did call attention to heavy discoloration from remote-controlled missile-dredging pumps which burrow deep into river beds and banks, collecting ore from which gold is extracted.

The majority of local mines use mercury to extract gold from ore either from land-based alluvial mines or from the beds of small rivers, creeks and other waterways.

Mercury contamination is a serious problem in northeast South America. Rivers in Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname and other states are all under threat from the indiscriminate use of quick silver by peasant miners.

The government, in the wake of the Omai disaster, also appears to be more sensitive to the damage that mercury, used here for more than a century, can do to the environment.

It is with this in mind that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) this week presented the Environmental Unit of the University of Guyana with about $50,000 (U.S.) worth of equipment to help it keep track of the damage the industry is causing.

The key component of the gift is the atomic absorption spectrophoto meter. This allows technicians to determine the levels of mercury, zinc, copper, cadmium and other heavy metals in water.

Apart from checking the Essequibo and Omai rivers for concentrations of metals, teams of scientists and technicians will go to the western gold fields to begin widespread sampling of urine and hair samples in humans in July.

"If a person eats fish from a river that had concentrations of mercury, we could find that out from hair samples. If they ingested it from breathing it, we could tell from their urine," said Malcolm Rodrigues, head of the Environmental Unit.

Guyana's small mining sector has ballooned over the years especially as illegal miners from neighboring Brazil and Venezuela have ventured across the border to compete with Guyanese in the gold fields. Officials estimate that more than 4,000 illegal miners are working in the country.

The country's military has spent many days over the last five years flushing out these illegal miners and sending them back home, particularly in the wake of violent confrontations between them and their Guyanese counterparts.

The deportation has not worked. The illegal miners merely return after a suitable period has passed to add their ecologically damaging practices to those of local miners.

Gold mining is one of the three largest industries in the country. With large and small scale mining, Guyana is expected to produce 400,000 ounces of gold this year.

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

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