A British mining company has been left facing tough questions over a potentially disasterous cyanide spill near Djibo, Northern Burkina Faso.
London based Avocet mining own the lucrative Inata Gold Mine, to where a truck carrying 40 tonnes of the toxic chemical was headed when it overturned beside a reservoir.
The incident which took place on the 29th of July has left Avocet and its contractors with serious questions to answer, over the safety of their operations, and the continued use of toxic substances in the processing of gold ore.
Yet despite coming close to causing catastrophic contamination to water supplies, AND the fact that it is the third of accident of its kind in recent months, the accident has been hardly reported.
Further investigations have now revealed that, incredibly, only relatively small amounts of cyanide were lost in the spill, but the accident and its aftermath have aptly demonstrated the incredible dangers posed to remote communities by the use of toxic chemicals in gold mining.
The two 20 tonne cyanide filled containers were being transported to Inata Gold Mine (around 40 km from Djibo in Northern Burkina Faso) by a subcontractor, when the truck carrying them swerved off a dam wall at the side of a reservior, and overturned.
Business as usual - Burkinabe people walk past overturned truck full of cyanide.
Following a clean-up operation overseen by worried mining company bosses, the lethal chemicals were transferred to the Inata Gold Mine, where it was discovered that the containers had indeed been damaged, and that relatively small but extremely deadly amounts of cyanide had leached out into the watercourse.
Fortunately for local people, it would seem that so far no human casualities have resulted from the spill, although numerous fish have been found poisoned, and stringent safety measures were immediately adopted by local farmers to protect precious livestock.
The real scandal is not just that this potentially disasterous incident took place, although it is in fact the third such incident to have taken place over recent months, but that so little has been said about it.
Only the children’s author and Burkina resident ‘Sahel Steve’ Davies has made any significant noise about the incident.
This is despite the fact that Avocet, which has its headquarters in London, prides itself on its CSR reputation – Avocet boasts on its website that:
“The health and safety of the Group’s employees and strict adherence to environmental compliance are of paramount importance…”
Avocet then procede to talk about the various social and development projects undertaken by the company in the region. In a report (right click ‘save as’) released by Colin Belshaw, general manager of Inata Gold Mine, the finger is squarely pointed at the Korean company Samsung, who are responsible for transport of the chemicals, and their local subcontractor Vehrad Transport. Mr Belshaw also opines that strong sunlight and local flooding should mitigate against the effects of the spill.
One might perhaps expect more from a business which apparently prides itself on its health and safety and wider CSR record. Particularly one might at least expect it to be a bit better at communicating with local residents affected by such a spillage via governmental news outlets – but that is not so according to Steve Davies who reports:
“Now, nearly three weeks after the accident, an uneasy calm has returned to Djibo. Lots of dead fish have been found but to date no humans have died from contact with contaminated water. So public opinion has settled on the theory that only a small amount of cyanide leaked out. This is being inferred from the lack of poisoned people piling up in hospital corridors. There has been no communication from the municipal authorities.”
Journalist Hyacinthe Sanou writing for allafrica.com points out:
“…une réaction officielle, pour rassurer et surtout sensibiliser la population, n’aurait pas non plus été de trop.” (An official reaction, to reassure and educate the local people, should not have been too much to ask.)
Avocet will yet need to work harder, much harder, if it seriously wishes to be seen as having higher ethical standards than other mining companies, such as the scandal hit Rio Tinto (for whom Avocet’s Executive Director A M Norris used to work).
Some will doubtless be left feeling that the truth is that in a remote area like Northern Burkina Faso, where foreign correspondants and share holders are thin on the ground, and where one mine can produce almost 240,000 ounces of gold per year (almost half of the company’s ambitious total annual target output of 500,000 ounces) public relations are not such a big priority.
There are also questions to be answered about their use of cyanide, which is famously toxic, but in mining terms also remarkably cheap. Funnily enough, no mention is made of the chemical on the company’s website, but it is used in the extraction of gold from the ore.
In 2000 a large cyanide spill at the Baia Mare Gold Mine in Romania caused massive scale pollution of water courses, leading it to be known as the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl.
This and other environmental disasters have now led to cyanide being banned from the gold processing industry, first in Hungary and more recently in Bulgaria too. So far as I know however, there is no great campaign against the use of the killer chemical in less wealthy/ developed/ media savvy parts of the world.
I would urge you to read Steve’s report and share it – this kind of life and death situation is the price others pay for western gold consumption, we need to be ready to hold producers such as Avocet to account for their standards of behaviour.
Please make sure you visit Steve’s site, and please repost, tweet and generally publicise this news in any way you can – public scrutiny leads to demands for higher standards. Public ignorance means companies can potentially get away with murder.
I have asked Avocet for a statement on this situation, and will publish their reply.