MAC: Mines and Communities

Ghana organisation accuses Newmont of "dishonesty" and "cover up"

Published by MAC on 2009-11-02
Source: Wacam (2009-10-15)

Cyanide spill at gold mine kills many fish

A leading Ghanaian community organisation, the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), is up in arms following an October 2009 cyanide spill at  one of the country's major gold mines, which poisoned many fish.

Newmont, the US company responsible for the disaster, has long claimed to be leading the field in good cyanide management.

However, according to WACAM, in this instance Newmont not only "dishonestly" minimised the impacts of the spill. It also "covered up" weaknesses in its management practices.

Allegedly the company didn't even recognise that the incident had occurred, until alerted by local people.


Statement of WACAM on the cyanide spillage by Newmont Ahafo

Ghana

15 October 2009

Newmont Ghana Gold Limited (NGGL)'s Ahafo mine has spilled cyanide from its processing plant at Kenyase into river Asunua which flows into river Subri. The spillage was identified on the dawn of Saturday 10th October 2009 by community people when they found many dead fishes floating on their river. They then reported the incident to officials of the company immediately.

Communities such as Kantinka, Afua Serwakrom, Norbertkrom, Kyeikrom, Bronikrom, Lawyerkrom, Kwamebourkrom and a host of hamlets have been affected by Newmont’s cyanide spillage by depriving the communities of access to potable water as well as economic, social, recreational and cultural benefits they derive from the river.

A Media Release of Newmont on 12th October 2009 stated inter alia “Newmont Ghana’s Ahafo Mine has contained and neutralised within its mine site, a minor overflow which occurred at its processing plant.” The media release however failed to provide information on when the spillage was communicated to EPA and the Minerals Commission because mining companies are required to report cyanide spillages to the Regulatory Agencies immediately when they are detected.

To describe a cyanide spillage which had killed many fishes and other life forms in water bodies, as a minor overflow which was contained and neutralised, clearly indicates the efforts by Newmont to mask the magnitude of the spillage and downplay its real effects. It would be helpful to mention that, despite the efforts to clean the affected river of dead fishes, many dead fishes were still floating on the river on Tuesday (13th October 2009) which was the fourth day after the detection of the spillage.

Unethical

It is worrying that Newmont employed every conceivable means, including scientific dishonesty and misinformation, to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of the cyanide spillage.

The Media Release of Newmont stated that:“Cyanide is only harmful to human beings at levels of 20ppm and above.” What Newmont quoted as the harmful level of cyanide to human beings is 100 times the permissible standard of the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency for free cyanide.

Free Cyanide concentration of 1ppm can cause death and free cyanide concentration of 20ppm (parts per million) would kill instantly. The Ghana Environmental Protection (EPA) and the US EPA permissible standard for Free Cyanide is 0.20ppm. Ghana EPA’s standard for Total Cyanide is 1.0ppm and 0.6ppm for Weak Acid Dissociable (WAD) cyanide, as quoted from the US EPA Review of Newmont of Newmont Ahafo South Project EIA by John Hillenbrand.

It is unethical to communicate untruths that have serious health implications to the public as part of Newmont’s image saving strategy.

The US Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Newmont Ahafo Mine in 2005, after the mine had started its operations.

The review, undertaken by an official of US Environmental Protection Agency, was very critical of the cyanide management practices of Newmont Ahafo mine in addition to other serious concerns relating to water quality monitoring. The report, titled "US Environmental Protection Agency Review Newmont Ahafo South Project EIA –John Hillenbrand (12/28/05)" stated that: “ Cyanide will be discharged into the tailings facility at 1000 times the aquatic life water quality standard and 100 times the drinking water standard, thereby setting up for future water quality problems.”

The experience of Wacam shows that mining companies that spill cyanide try to play technical games by stating that, because cyanide degrades with sunlight (photo degradable), cyanide spillages are not as harmful as people are made to believe.

The fact is that free cyanide degrades into poisonous substances including cyanate and thiocyanate which persist in rivers for longer periods. Cyanide can also form complex bonds called Weak Acid Dissociable (WAD) cyanide with heavy metals like copper, aluminium, zinc which can persist in rivers with low ph of 4.5- 6. Total cyanide refers to all free cyanide, all dissociable cyanide complexes and all strong metal cyanide complexes of Iron, aluminium, cobalt and Platinum, Ferro –cyanide and Ferri – cyanide, which discompose in the presence of sunlight to release cyanide ions into the environment. Total cyanide which includes strong metal cyanide complexes can persist in rivers for about 25 years. Long exposure to these poisonous cyanide complexes has serious health implications.

Unacceptable delay

The common practice is that Regulatory Agencies visit sites of cyanide spillages to take water samples to test for free cyanide, more than 48 hours after the occurrence of a cyanide spillage when they know that the free cyanide had degraded.

In the specific case of the cyanide spillage by Newmont Ahafo mine, officials of the Environmental Protection Agency visited the site on the third day after the detection of the cyanide spillage which gave Newmont enough time to engage in clean up and more importantly, when the free cyanide would have degraded. Water quality tests after cyanide spillages in most cases cover only free cyanide and not Weak Acid Dissociable cyanide and Total cyanide.

An important issue that needs to be investigated is whether EPA Officials were informed about the cyanide spillage immediately when it was detected, or the delay of the EPA officials in visiting the mine site stemmed from their own attitude to emergency situations.

The cyanide spillage has exposed the weaknesses in the environmental management plans and the Emergency Response strategies of Newmont Ahafo mine because the company could not detect the cyanide spillage when it occurred, and it took the sacrifice of community people, our activists, the Assemblyman of the area and other volunteers, to disseminate information on the spillage as quickly as possible to the communities, chiefs and other stakeholders to avoid fatalities.

Cover-up

Newmont Ghana Gold Limited attempted to cover up the weaknesses in its environmental management practices, which resulted in the cyanide spillage, when it stated in the Media Release that the company was “undertaking its own investigations to fully establish the cause of the incident and help prevent future occurrence.”

According to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the cyanide spillage was caused by the negligence of Newmont Ahafo mine.

Recent media reports indicate that Newmont Ahafo mine, Golden Star Resources, AngloGold Ashanti Obuasi Mine and AngloGold Ashanti Iduapriem mine were either fully or 90 percent certified for signing on to the International Cyanide Code, which is a safety standard guidelines for the management of dangerous chemicals such as cyanide.

The cyanide spillage by Newmont Ahafo mine has shown clearly that Ghana needs strong laws to regulate the mining industry and that mining companies sign on to Voluntary Codes of conduct as a greenwash strategy to promote self regulation.

The mining companies have adopted the strategy of avoiding responsibility for chemical pollution of water bodies from their operations on chemical fishing, and even when there is overbearing evidence of chemical spillages from their facilities, they try to downplay the impacts.

Wacam wishes to condemn Newmont Ahafo Mine for not putting up a credible story about the cyanide spillage.

Though Cyanide spillages have grave social, economic, environmental, and cultural and health implications, Ghana has no law to hold mining companies responsible for such spillages.

The cyanide spillage of Newmont Ahafo mine is the 15th officially-reported cyanide spillage of the current mining boom.

After indicting Newmont Ahafo mine of causing the cyanide spillage through negligence, the EPA cannot hold Newmont culpable based on any law. It is time to incorporate the “Polluter Pays Principle” in Ghana’s mining laws. The Cyanide sludge that spilled into the environment contained a lot of gold and Ghana has lost a lot of our natural wealth through the negligence of Newmont Ahafo mine. If the spillage had occurred in Newmont’s own country which is US, the company would have paid more than $100 million dollars as cleanup cost in addition to compensation to the affected communities.

We make the following demands:

In conclusion, Wacam expects Newmont to apologise to the people of Ghana for polluting our water bodies with cyanide and also making a false presentation of the issue to the public. Wacam wishes to thank the communities, our volunteers, chiefs, Assemblyman for Dormaa Electoral Area, the DCE and staff of Asutifi District Assembly, the media and everybody who contributed to ensure that there were no fatalities associated with the spillage.

Daniel Owusu-Koranteng
Executive Director of Wacam

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