Albion Monitor /News

Class Action Suit Against "Cyanide River" Guyana Mine

by Bert Wilkinson

on "Cyanide River" and most recent article in this topic
(IPS) GEORGETOWN -- Exactly two years after a dam holding toxic cyanide-laced mining waste leaked into two of Guyana's rivers effectively rendering some water supplies useless, residents along those waterways still live in fear of the health effects from that disaster.

Many residents in settlements like Riverview, 114 kilometers downstream from where the mine broke are so fearful that they refuse to venture into the country's largest river despite assurances that all is now well.

"Right now we have to walk two miles into the bush to get water from creeks," says Leo Fernandez one of 700 residents in the area. We are afraid to drink (the water) or swim in the river," he says.

But while Fernandez and others will have to continue enduring the trauma from the spill, environmental groups both here and in Canada are clearly determined to ensure that the company takes responsibility for the disaster.

On Aug. 19, 1995, the tailings pond at Omai Gold Mines sprung a leak and when it was repaired after 100 hours of frantic work, some four million cubic meters or about 30 months worth of cyanide-tainted waste had spilled into the nearby Omai and Essequibo rivers.

The spill killed marine life and other animals for some 80 kms downstream and disrupted the life of some 30,000 residents.

The Essequibo runs for almost the length of this 215,000 sq km country and is Guyana's biggest and one of its busiest waterways.

The mine was closed for five months following the spill.

Environmentalists are supporting thousands of people who have filed lawsuits against Cambior Inc., the Montreal-based majority owner of the Omai Gold Mines. Golden Star Resources of Colorado in the United States and the Guyanese government are also shareholders.

The suit is asking that the company pays $69 million Canadian in damages, or approximately 3,000 dollars to each of the 23,000 litigators
Last week the Quebec-based Researchers International, a voluntary organization, brough together people interested in taking Cambior to court. The group has sent a human rights expert to take a firsthand look at Guyana's judicial system and to talk with top legal experts.

The reason for the presence of University of Quebec professor, William Schabas in this South American republic is to fight off what he says is an effort by Cambior's attorney's to have a class action suit now being heard by a Canadian court, moved to Guyana where fines are much smaller and where there is no history of class action lawsuits against local or foreign firms.

The suit is asking that the company pays $69 million Canadian in damages, or approximately 3,000 dollars to each of the 23,000 litigators. This settlement would be in addition to the 200 individual claims brought by Guyanese fishermen, loggers, miners and others whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the environmental disaster.

Omai has already dealt with claims from some fishermen for loss of income. The company has also admitted liability for damage as was contained in a full page advertisement in the aftermath of the spill.

The advertisement also alluded to what the company says was a public apology.

Schabas says the case is progressing, but from all appearances the firm's lawyers clearly prefer to have the case heard in a Guyana court system because it is apparently easier to handle and would generate less damaging publicity.

Researchers International is banking heavily on a statement by Prime Minister, Janet Jagan questioning the integrity of Guyana's legal system. She stopped short of calling the system corrupt in a recent radio interview.

So if Schabas and others have their way, they will prove to a Canadian court that justice will be better served by a determination in Canada.

"Omai is morally, financially and legally responsible for what happened. They must take responsibility for their actions," says local environmentalist, Joycelyn Dow.

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Albion Monitor August 24, 1997 (

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