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Of Negligence, Newmont and Cyanide Spillage

Sat, 17 Oct 2009 Source: GNA

A GNA News Feature by Boakye-Dankwa Boadi

Accra, Oct. 16, GNA - Our Elders attribute a saying to the Lizard - Okotre se dee otoo obuor boo no ho nye no ahi se dee okaa se Agya wo ani gyeni - literally put - the lizard says it is not as much angry with the one who threw the stone that hit it as with the one who commended the perpetrator for his marksmanship.

And it came to pass that there was cyanide spillage at the Ahafo Mine of Newmont Ghana Gold Limited (NGGL) and the Ghana News Agency as usual started investigations into the incident. However, as it turned out the Public Relation outfit of Newmont issued a press statement before GNA's initial report was ready. This was because of the Agency's usual painstaking way of doing its work to maintain its credibility. In line with acceptable professional practice the GNA carried the statement virtually unedited on Monday October 12 2009: "Newmont's Ahafo Mine has contained and neutralized, within its mine site, a minor chemical overflow which occurred at its processing plant, a statement said on Monday. "'The overflow at the processing plant on Thursday, October 8, contained gold ore active processing solution, including sodium cyanide,' the statement, signed by Ms. Adiki O. Ayitevie, Regional Manager, Communications, said.

"'It was immediately contained with sandbags and neutralized with sodium hypochlorite, a neutralizing solution and cleaned up as per standard operating procedures,' it said.

"The statement noted that following heavy rains at the mine area, tests were conducted at several downstream locations to ensure the spill had not spread beyond the contained area on site.

"It said analyses, by external laboratories, were underway to verify the negligible levels of cyanide so far detected. "Cyanide is only harmful to human beings at levels of 20 part per million (PPM) and above but the statement said that what had been discovered so far, after the overflow, was less than 0.25 ppm.

"The statement said though the overflow was a n onsite incident, stakeholders including the District Chief Executive, people of four hamlets concerned, chiefs and other opinion leaders were informed about the onsite incident and the proactive mitigation measures were taken. "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Minerals Commission's Chief Inspector of Mine have also been informed and are currently on site conducting their investigation."

"The statement noted that there was a short-term environmental impact of fish mortality which was also reported by people from the hamlets near the mine following local rainstorms.

"It said though currently fishes in the ponds in the drainage flow of the Mine were alive, 'we are investigating the potential cause of the fish mortality and whether this was due to the bleach agent used to neutralize the cyanide solution, residual cyanide or other causes.' "'No pollution of the water sources downstream from the plant site has been found. Live fish have been found swimming both below and above the point at which the dead fish were found,' the statement said. "Meanwhile the inhabitants of the impacted hamlets have been supplied with alternative fresh water to use while further investigations are being undertaken to confirm the integrity of their water sources. "'The company is also undertaking its own investigations to fully establish the cause of the incident and help prevent future recurrence,' the statement said."

No sooner had the Agency sent the release than its own Reporter's copy came through and in line with the Agency's practice it also put across its own story and reported: "Newmont Gold Ahafo Mine has spilled cyanide into River Subri in the Asutifi District of the Brong Ahafo Region. Initial reports indicate that residents of Kwame Bourkrom (Agya Abim Akuraa) on Saturday morning discovered a number of dead fish floating in the local Yaakyi stream and reported the incident to the Management of Newmont. "At the time of filing this report officials of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Region have visited the site to assess the extent of the spillage. "More later'"

On Tuesday 13 October GNA came out with a more comprehensive report: "Last Saturday's spillage of cyanide into Yaakyi, a tributary of River Subri in the Asutifi District, was as a result of the negligence of Newmont Gold Ghana Limited (NGGL), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated. "Mr Isaac Osei, Brong Ahafo Regional Director of EPA, told the GNA that Newmont failed to effectively monitor the rate of water flow into their environmental control dams and so when one of the dams began to overflow the Company could not detect it.

"He said he had had occasion to advise the Company not to rely solely on machines but should also engage people to monitor the dams daily, adding; 'because they have been relying on machines when the overflow started they could not detect it on time'.

"On the extent of the spillage, Mr Osei said it was restricted to the Yaakyi stream and that remedial measures were taken before the polluted stream entered the River Subri.

"On the impact of the spillage, Mr Osei explained that the negative socio-economic impact of the spillage on the local communities was minimal because the affected area had few small hamlets and the people were the first to detect the spillage through the number of dead fish they saw floating in the Yaakyi stream, adding that Newmont was now supplying potable water to the affected communities.

"Mr Francis Kumah, Assemblyman for Dormaa Electoral Area of Kenyasi Number Two under which the affected area falls, told GNA that residents of Kwamebourkrom last Saturday reported to him that dead fish were floating on the local stream, Yaakyi.

"He said he accompanied the residents and they traced the source to one of the control dams of Newmont that was overflowing into the Yaakyi. "Mr Kumah said when the Management of Newmont was informed it sent personnel in a dingy boat to collect the dead fish that were floating on the stream.

"Meanwhile Ms. Adiki O. Ayitevie, Regional Manager, Communications of Newmont, in a release on Monday said Newmont's Ahafo Mine had contained and neutralized, within its mine site, a minor chemical overflow, which occurred at its processing plant on Thursday, October 8 2009. "It said the overflow contained gold ore active processing solution, including sodium cyanide.

"Cyanide is highly toxic. Cyanide poisoning can occur through inhalation, ingestion, and skin or eye contact. One teaspoonful of two per cent solution can kill a person." As the drama unfolded the GNA allowed the Public Relations Outfit of Newmont to have access to its network again in line with professional practice so that at the end of the day Ghanaians, who are the owners of the Agency, would get a balanced coverage of the whole episode. The following is pro-Newmont Public Relations Outfit version: "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday confirmed that the minor overflow of processing solution that occurred at Newmont's Ahafo Mines was contained within the mines and did not get into waters consumed by the residents of the area.

"Mr Isaac Osei, Brong-Ahafo Regional Manager of the EPA, told the Ghana News Agency that the overflow occurred in the "processing event pond", which is within the process plant area of the mines and far away from the environmental control dams (ECD).

"He explained that gold ore was leached in the process plant and residual low grade process solution was stored in the process and event pond, which contained sodium cyanide. The residual water is recovered from the tailing storage facility and recycled to the process plant for re-use. "Mr Osei said: 'There is a computerised level indicator which signals the staff members what the level of the water in the pond has reached at any point in time - it was at this point that the indicator gave them the wrong signal so they did not realise the overflow in time. "'This is where I thought they were negligent because beside the computers they should have had some staff members to monitor the level of the water in the pond to prevent such occurrences.' "Mr Osei said the chemical that spilled off was not raw cyanide but a processing solution which contained cyanide. He also added that the chemical did not reach the ECD and it did not affect residents in the area in anyway.

"The ECD is a dam created by Newmont to control the quantity and quality of run-off from the mine site before it enters waters that the residents of the area consume. "'When the water is trapped in the ECD, measures are then taken to remedy the situation,' he said. "Mr Osei said it was on its way to the ECD that the contaminated water entered into a "small tributary" of the Subri River but did not reach the ECD, 'much more reaching the Subri River itself'. "He assured the public that as far as that spillage was concerned, there was no cause for alarm, but asked Newmont to man their processing pond properly and also to report such spillages to the EPA in good time. "Meanwhile, Newmont has since then provided alternative sources of potable water for the people in the area, while further investigations are ongoing to ensure complete public safety." Now back to what our Elders said at the beginning of this piece. It comes out clearly that the Public Relations Outfit of Newmont aimed at downplaying the effects of the spillage rather than accepting blame for the Company's negligence and apologising for their mistake. They should also have dwelt on measures they were putting in place to prevent a recurrence. Newmont also attempted to cover up by sending people to go and collect the dead fish. By giving Newmont access to its network, the Agency paid a price. Some people thought the Agency was giving conflicting reports on the situation. This Writer is of the view that the price the Agency paid was worth it because it furthered the course of freedom of expression, where all interested parties are allowed access to the media to tell their stories. It is pertinent to point out to multinational mining companies operating in Ghana that the minerals in Ghana belong to Ghanaians and they have been invited to help to mine them. If Ghanaians had the means they would not have been called in. They should not for a moment lose sight of this reality.

Ghanaians are not ready to accept the situation where "the tenant takes upon himself or herself the duty of closing the main gate to the house at night". Simply put, Ghanaians are in no way going to tolerate impunity on the part of any multinational company. The mining companies may take the gold and even cheat by under declaring the amount of gold they are producing but for Christ sake they should not toy with the wellbeing of mining communities. If they do, they should be chased out. "Yen ara yen asase ni" as the Akans would say, or "Ma so tinga mbala" as the Frafras put it. 16 Oct. 09

Columnist: GNA