Cyanide and Avocet… now Romanians complain of exploitation

Hot on the heels of the news of insecurities in the supply of cyanide to Inata Gold Mine owned by London based Avocet Mining, come reports that protestors have rallied to try and prevent former Avocet CEO Jonathon Henry from mining one of the world’s largest unexploited gold reserves in rural Romania.

Gold mining companies, it seems, do not change much from place to place. Just as Avocet trumpet environmental responsibility, while their suppliers topple trucks full of cyanide briquettes into reservoirs, so Gabriel Resources, the company Jonathon Henry joined after he stepped down as Avocet CEO, talk a lot of talk about sustainable environmental behaviour, but locals aren’t convinced.

Mr Henry oversaw Avocet’s ‘withdrawal’ from their ‘misadventure‘ at Zeravshan Gold Company in Tajikistan, where… things did not quite go to plan for the mining company . Somehow though Avocet managed to emerge with a profit, while the Tajiks were left with a new Chinese owner and a pay rate 15 or 16 times less than foreign experts.

Such disparity in remuneration may also be at the heart of recent labour force ‘issues’ at Inata gold mine.

When Jonathon Henry eventually left Avocet his shoes were swiftly filled by Brett Richards, whose experience working for alleged war profiteer George Forrest’s Congolese operations mean that he is no newcomer to the vagaries of African politics. Among other things, companies owned by Forrest are claimed to have helped Angolan rebels illegally extract millions of pounds of diamonds to fund armament purchases.

But despite promises of state of the art facilities, Romanians are less than convinced by Gabriel Resources, and why would they be – according to Gabriel Resources own investigations, the area has suffered widespread environmental damage at the hands of gold miners for hundreds if not thousands of years. Rivers are polluted, ground is poisoned with various poisons, including high concentrations of cyanide, and despite local streams being too poisonous to be drinkable, most houses in the vicinity do not have indoor plumbing.

Why anyone would expect another mining company to be welcomed into such an environment is hard to imagine.

Even new facilities such as roads promised by Gabriel resources have failed to live up to expectations, crumbling beneath the wheels of motor traffic.

You can register your support for indigenous Romanian activism against cyanide based gold mining at Respect Rosia Montana, you can also follow the protest on twitter @respectRosia.

<update> This is the official site of the protest, and the official site of the petition is here.

The huge financial muscle of large scale mining operations mean that countries such as Burkina Faso or Romania where large amounts of the populations live in poverty, environmental exploitation must be fiercely resisted by outsiders as well as locals if it is to be held in check.


Correspondance between Avocet mining and myself

For those who have been following the ongoing coverup story about the cyanide spill at Djibo dam, Burkina Faso, you may recall that I did promise to publish the correspondance between Avocet mining and myself, so here y’go.

Me: “please send me any corporate statement you wish to release about the cyanide spillage at Djibo dam on July 29th 2011.”

Avocet: “Happy to answer any questions you may have [whoopee!!].  As I am sure you know the spill was by Samsung and not Avocet and was in fact not at Inata.”

Me: “thanks for your response. Perhaps you could start by explaining why Avocet continue to use Cyanide, when its dangers are apparent, and its use in gold mining operations is now banned in some European countries?

 Secondly, could you explain what measures are being taken by Avocet to ensure the safety of supply, as I understand this to be the third accident of this nature? Please also outline the measures that are being taken by Avocet against its contractors with regard to compensation.

 Thirdly, can you confirm that the previous accidents to which I refer involved the same contractors?

 Fourthly, as Avocet were active in clearing up the accident, please can you tell me what levels of contamination were measured, and what level of fish mortality & groundwater contamination were noted.

 Please can you also clarify whether toxicity levels are still being checked, and if so how long that will continue for.

 Finally, I would appreciate some clarification as to the extent of your communications in Burkina Faso about this event – local people and ex patriate British residents have reported that they dont know what the levels of contamination are/were and are reliant on the lack of dead bodies piling up to reassure themselves that deaths have not resulted from the spill.”

Avocet: “Please find attached our formal communique to the ministry of mine and the ministry of environmental affairs in Burkina Faso [uploaded here] that should answer most of your questions.

A bit of background on gold mining to assist with the question as to the use of cyanide.  The use of cyanide to recover gold from its host rock is only method in place throughout the entire gold mining industry.  This is because it is the only viable means to extract gold in economic quantities.  So you can be sure that any gold item you use or have purchased has been recovered with the same method.  Due to cyanide being a controlled substance and therefore not available to the public, artisanal miners often use mercury to recover gold.  This is obviously not feasible in a large scale operation where the transportation and disposal of mercury would be prohibitively risky [unlike cyanide which is really safe] and expensive.

To the best of my knowledge the cyanide ban has not yet been put in place in Europe [actually it’s so flippin hazardous that it’s banned in a number of countries, and a number of US states, but it has managed not to get banned outright by the EU].  However if and when this ban comes into place, the most likely outcome will be that a gold concentrate is produced at mine sites which is then transported to a territory where the cyanide ban does not exist for final recovery of gold.”

Me: “…have you as a company actually investigated other alternatives to Cyanide (such as Thiosulphate), and if so, what are your reasons for staying with Cyanide?

…are Avocet a signatory to the International Cyanide Management code, if not, why not? And if so, who is your third party auditor?

With regard to your operation at Inata, can you please tell me how many tonnes of Cyanide are received there per week?

… are you able to confirm what security arrangements there were surrounding this particular delivery? (Escorts, equipment and so on.)
…I am now hearing reports from the Soum area of Burkina Faso that ‘Le Voix du Soum’ radio station is warning people in Inata and Chembolo not to drink their water. Local sources report that this is due to cyanide contamination – please can you make urgent comment on this situation, and whether it relates to cyanide from Inata gold mine.”

Avocet: “As per the report, the levels of cyanide in the water post the accident that the report covered, were marginal as at 4 August.  So there is certainly no danger at this point in time of contamination from that event and I can only conclude that this is another unrelated event that the station is referring to or they are misinformed.

The use of Thiosulphate for commercial gold recovery has not yet been proven.  Research is underway to determine how best to use this compound as an alternative to cyanide and certainly if and when this is proven , Avocet will evaluate whether a shift to this from cyanide is viable.”

Me: “do you have any knowledge of any ‘unrelated event’ relating to cyanide security at Inata?

…the thing I am really interested in right now, and would most appreciate your help with, is this mention in the report of two previous accidents.

Vehrad claim to have no knowledge of these incidents, but as Avocet are siting them in the report, there must be an official log of them. For the sake of transparency I would very much appreciate you letting me know the nature of these incidents, their locations and precisely when they happened.

If indeed Avocet are taking all necessary steps to ensure cyanide security and to hold their contractors to account, I would like to reflect that in further reporting.”

Avocet: “There have been no other cyanide leakages from deliveries to the Inata mine.

Have you contacted Samsung? Contact details are in the report.  I really think they are best placed to comment on these issues for obvious reasons.”

– Actually I havent bothered with Samsung, because Steve Davies got there first, and got loads of help… ahem. I contacted Vehrad, they claimed to know nothing at all.

So I never got an answer to the question of these other two accidents, nobody wants to talk about that. Nor have I any reason why Avocet arent signed up to the industry Cyanide code (must be because their record is so flawless I suppose), or any details of the security arrangements, or even any idea how many tonnes are transported to the mine per week.

However, I feel inclined to keep trying, you never know, we may yet get some more answers.

Cyanide spillage in Djibo, Burkina Faso demonstrates dangers posed by Gold mining

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 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.