MAC: Mines and Communities

Deadly Cyanide Dump Unearthed Near Coast

Published by MAC on 2002-12-18

Deadly Cyanide Dump Unearthed Near Coast

Source: The Namibian (Windhoek) - December 18, 2002

Maggi Barnard at Swakopmund

A dozen drums containing a deadly poison, which pose a serious danger to the health of thousands of people in the vicinity, have been discovered at an abandoned mine in the Namib Desert outside Swakopmund.

Twelve 100 kg drums of calcium cyanide, which is highly toxic, plus loads of other chemicals - including nitric and sulphuric acid - were left behind when the Namib Lead Mine was abandoned by its owners about four years ago. It was only when a Swakopmund resident discovered the chemicals by chance, about six weeks ago, that alarm was raised over this potential danger.

"It is a disaster waiting to happen," the resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.

"It is just as bad as leaving live ammunition lying around." With the festive season approaching, and knowing that people tend to explore the desert during holiday times, the resident started contacting everybody he could think of who could do something about it.

He said he immediately raised the alarm when he saw the calcium cyanide labels on the drums, as he had a terrible experience as a 10-year-old child with the poison.

He saw a friend who accidentally inhaled cyanide die in front of him. George Laubscher, Director of Swachem Namibia at Walvis Bay, said one drum of the poison was enough to kill three-quarters of Swakopmund's population, especially if it got into the drinking water.

It is a deadly poison when inhaled or digested.

The substance can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, through the skin or by ingestion.

Laubscher, who visited the site with the Chief Mining Inspector of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, has since put a new padlock on the iron gate to the room where the 12 drums are stored.

Cyanide is supposed to be stored behind locked doors in a room with non-removable windows.

Drums Eroding

There is merely an iron gate at the entrance to the store room, which could easily be opened by force.

The drums are also starting to show signs of serious erosion, while one lid has already sprung open. The cyanide is in powder form and can easily be blown away by wind.

The door of the other building, where bottles of nitric acid, acetic acid and several other chemicals are standing on the floor between files, mining plans and other debris, is not locked and only closed with a piece of wire.

The Namibian has learned from a reliable source that attempts by an official to get the potentially lethal situation sorted out as a matter of urgency had proved fruitless since the matter was first reported six weeks ago.

The first reaction from the Ministry of Mines and Energy was apparently to dig a hole to dump all the chemicals in.

The Ministry of Health and Social Services reportedly said it had nothing to do with the chemicals, while the Swakopmund Municipality said it was outside its area of jurisdiction.

In terms of the Minerals Act of 1992, when a mineral licence holder abandons a prospecting, retention or mining area, they must demolish structures, remove all debris and other objects, as well as take all steps necessary to remedy damage caused by operations to the surface and the environment of the area in question.

Piet Liebenberg, Chief Mining Inspector, said the owners of the Namib Lead Mine never notified the Ministry of their intention to abandon the site and disappeared without doing any rehabilitation work.

When the Ministry cannot get hold of the owners, it is their obligation to make the mine site safe.

Liebenberg said he was the only mining inspector left in the country and that there was no time to do proper inspections.

Asked whether the potentially disastrous situation at the mine site should not take priority, he said he had contacted the Ongopolo Mine to ask if they could dispose of the cyanide.

The mine has the only facility in the country to neutralise the poison. Ongopolo is apparently willing to take it, if it is delivered to them.

Mines Man Digs

IN Liebenberg said Jan Joubert of Graton Diamonds, the exclusive prospecting licence (EPL) holder of the mine site, had indicated his willingness to remove all the chemicals from the site.

Joubert confirmed this to The Namibian but said he would only do it once he got permission from the owner of the movable assets.

These were sold on auction to Chris Davis from Cape Town in 1999 after Namib Lead Mine went bankrupt.

Joubert said he would remove all the chemicals, and transport the cyanide to Ongopolo at his own cost if Davis gave his permission in writing and did not charge him for the chemicals. Joubert tried to contact Davis in Cape Town yesterday, but he was out of town. The other option would be to get permission to confiscate the chemicals from the site.

According to the source, such a letter had already been drafted in the Ministry of Mines and Energy, but the Director supposed to sign it has refused.

"I don't understand why it had to come to this to sort out this mess," said Laubscher.

He said he was concerned that the cyanide might end up in the underground water table, which could lead to widespread contamination. The main shaft and one tunnel has water in it. Whether this has already been contaminated is not clear. None of the waste dumps have been treated.

The distinct smell of sulphuric acid hangs in the air, while one of the dumps has started burning by itself as is characteristic of this chemical. No vegetation has been growing at the site since it has been abandoned, despite a good rainy season last year, which could be an indication of the widespread contamination.

Jackal, springbok and other wildlife in the vicinity could also be affected by the situation.

Site Unsafe

Another grave concern is general safety at the site. The main shaft of more than 600 m deep is not fenced off, posing a potentially very dangerous situation. The two tunnels or ramps can easily be accessed.

Loads of tracks leading to the mine and footprints going into the tunnels is a clear indication that the site is regularly visited. The tunnels have apparently become a "party place" for teenagers from Swakopmund.

According to Paulus Potele, who has worked at the mine since 1978 and was left behind as a caretaker by the last owners, many people came to snoop around or strip the buildings and other equipment.

Most of the buildings and houses have been stripped of their roofs, windows and doors, while all the copper cables have been ripped out. Even Potele's bed and mattress were taken.

Potele said he had not been paid since the middle of last year.

He has given up on trying to call the Police when people start stripping the mine.

There are about 200 abandoned mine sites in the country that have not been rehabilitated.

According to an expert, it would cost about N$50 million to completely rehabilitate the Namib Lead Mine, and about N$16 000 to transport and neutralise the 12 drums of calcium cyanide.

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