Villages in the Wassa West District of Ghana's western region have been hit by the spillage of thousands of cubic metres of mine wastewater contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals. The cyanide-laced waste contaminated the River Asuman on October 16 when a tailings dam ruptured at a mine operation owned by the South African company, Goldfields Ltd.
Hundreds of dead fish, crabs and birds can be seen littering the banks of the river. Others float on the surface of the river which is the only source of drinking water for Abekoase, Huni and surrounding villages.
Virtually all life forms in the river and its tributaries have been decimated, and people's livelihoods are endangered. Scientists fear the cyanide and heavy metal residue from the spill could remain for decades posing a health and environmental threat to the people and wildlife in the area.
Officials of Goldfields have warned all citizens to avoid contact with the water. Fishing is now prohibited, and the people have also been instructed not to feed the dead fish to other animals.
In an interview, Stephen Yirenkyi, senior environmental coordinator of Goldfields said, "It's true. There has been a cyanide spillage here, and we're meeting members of the communities to see how best we can resolve the issue."
The villagers attribute the spill to overflow resulting from design flaws and a heavy downpour. But Richard Graeme, managing director of Goldfields, told ENS that a joint in the main pipe which carries the cyanide wastewater to the tailings dam was dislodged after a heavy downpour allowing the cyanide solution to spew onto the ground.
Masses of dead fish along the river banks confirm the worst fears about the level of cyanide contamination. But Graeme said the cyanide that found its way into the river was "insignificant and could not have been injurious to aquatic life let alone human life."
When asked how insignificant portions of cyanide could kill plants, birds, crabs and fish, he said, "We put in chlorine instantly, and that's the responsible thing to do to neutralize the toxicity of the cyanide until you determine the level of cyanide in the water. I can swear it was the chlorine that killed the fish and not the cyanide."
This explanation has been discounted by the villagers who said they were some of the first people to arrive at the scene of the disaster, and they saw the dead fish before officials from the company put chemicals in the river.
Rejecting Graeme's denials as "cynical, immoral, dangerous and wicked," Kofi Pare a 28 year old resident of Abekoase said, "Some of us unknowingly drank the water from the river, and we need to be told the truth." He stressed that the incident was the result of an overflow from the tailings dam and not some pipes getting loose at the joint.
Pare called on the United Nations, the European Union and other international officials and conservationists to investigate the legal and financial implications of the spill. "When disasters of this magnitude happen in Europe, it's news and all the big organizations and individuals rush there to show their love or issue statements, but when it happens in Africa it's business as usual. This is not fair," Pare said.
"My company regrets this accident that has happened. How much cyanide was spilled we do not know, but we saw it early and shut off the pump, the spillage occurred at 3 am and we informed the people at 4.30 am. By midday we started sending the tankers with water," Graeme said.
"We did some testing with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and there was some cyanide in the river but low levels," Graeme explained. "But cyanide is not as bad as people make it seem, it's just because it was used in the gas chambers some years ago so it sounds really bad in the ear, these villagers dump their excreta into the river, and that should be the problem for them because this is the water they drink, there is so much faecal coliform in the river and that for me is the problem not the cyanide in the water," Graeme declared.
Ghana's EPA has made no official comment on the spill. The officer in charge of the EPA in the Western Region, Irene Heathcote, said, "The incident had indeed happened." When pressed to comment on the issue, she simply said, "Please call my boss in Accra." The acting head of Ghana's EPA could not be reached for comment.
Medical authorities however believe that cyanide pollution of the River Asuman and its tributaries could have a long term impact on human health. "It's possible that the cyanide and other heavy metals may have been carried into agricultural areas by runoff, and this may enter the food chain, explained Dr. Crentsil, a medical consultant.
"You see the people who drank the contaminated water and others who consume food laced with cyanide are not going to die now, but the effects will manifest with time - cancers, miscarriages, nervous problems, you name them," he said.
Daniel Owusu Koranteng, executive director of the local mine watch organization Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM) based in the Wassa West district where the incident occurred, demanded that the owners of Goldfields accept full financial responsibility for the cyanide spill.
"People in the villages of Abekoase and Huni have lost their clean drinking water and their livelihood as they can no longer sell or eat produce from their farms through which the river runs. Goldfields should not hide from their responsibility for damages, we need to demand compensation for those directly affected by mining disasters," he said.
Describing the disaster as "unprecedentedly serious" Joshua Awuku Appau of the Accra based Greenearth organization said the use of cyanide in gold mining poses an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.
"There is the need for long term monitoring program along the whole river system, but there is still a risk of another catastrophe as long as cyanide is being kept behind a dam, which is often too weak. This is unacceptable, and the mining industry must learn that clean rivers and healthy ecosystems are more precious than gold," Awuku stressed.
Simone Pingel, head of the Africa Desk of FIAN, a human rights organization, said there must be an international effort to protect developing countries from mining practices that would not be allowed where these companies have their headquarters in the U.S., Australia, Canada or Germany. "Mining companies need to be held accountable and international standards need to be put in place to prevent future catastrophes," she said.
In towns and villages along the River Asuman, the most pressing issue for residents is how to pick up the pieces of their lives which are intimately linked to the damaged river system. Their disdain for institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Mines Inspectorate Division and other state organizations is obvious. "They are all agents of the mining companies," a resident of Abekoase fumed in an interview.
"This poison is spilling over and killing us, repeated failures of the dam walls had resulted in poisoning the rivers with cyanide, this area is no longer habitable," lamented Nana Aqua a 70 year old man from Abekoase village.
"I think we need much more strict rules in the mining sector so this type of accident will not happen," said a visibly shaken 11 year old schoolboy who skipped school to look for clean water for his 80 year old ailing grandmother.
Cyanide used in heap leaching, a low cost technique for extracting metals from ore, is a regular feature of gold mining in Ghana.
Over the years, mining activities in the Wassa West District have generated social conflicts arising from land use conflicts, unfair compensation schemes for displaced communities and environmental degradation.
Surface mining and its associated land clearing has destroyed large tracts of the country's remaining tropical rainforests. A number of rivers and streams have dried up in the area, and protected species such as the red river hog, the roan antelope, the red colobus monkey and the black and white colobus monkey and several medicinal plants have been swept into oblivion by surface mining.
In June 1997, a cyanide spill from the Teberebie goldmine into the River Angonaben in the same district killed fish and destroyed vast stretches of farmland. Villagers wading through the water suffered severe leg injuries, nine villages were left without drinking water, and no compensation was paid to the villagers.
Four years later, little appears to have changed in terms of government oversight or industry practices.
An official of the Ghana Chamber of Mines who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "Incidents such as the cyanide spillage, of course, are completely unacceptable to the community and to the mining industry. They shouldn't happen and the industry needs to be doing all it can to prevent them happening.
With an annual output of around 50,000 tonnes, Ghana is Africa's second largest gold producer after South Africa.
- 183 Environment