Latin America Correspondent
Cyanide-saturated waste from Guyana's biggest gold mine was gushing into the former British colony's major river yesterday, threatening loggers, native Indians, wildlife and fish along the way. Those who live along the jungled banks of the Essequibo river rely on it for their drinking water and it is renowned for its fishing.
The accident could also close down South America's second-biggest gold mine for up to a year, a potential economic disaster for a small nation which gets a quarter of its revenue from the mine.
Cyanide is used to extract gold from ore. Afterwards, the highly poisonous residue had been stored in a "reservoir" at the Omai gold mine, 100 miles south-west of the capital, Georgetown, ever since the mine began production in January 1993.
There were around three million cubic metres of cyanide-tainted waste in the reservoir when the dam separating it from the Omai river cracked early on Sunday.
The waste gushed down the river and on into the Essequibo, the country's biggest, which runs to the Atlantic.
Canadian mining engineers sent by the Quebec-based Canadian company Cambior - which owns most of the mine in partnership with the American firm Golden Star Resources of Denver - were trying to build a new dam on the Omai river yesterday to stem the flow. By midnight on Monday, an estimated 1.25 million cubic metres of waste - almost half the total in the reservoir - had poured out.
The authorities sent out helicopters and foot patrols to distribute drinking water and warn Indians and others along the banks not to drink, fish or bathe in the affected rivers.
Omai Gold Mines Ltd - the two foreign firms plus the Guyana government with a 5- per-cent share - sacrificed its most productive part of the mine, known as the Fennel Pit, to allow the engineers to divert some of the waste.
By yesterday afternoon, there were no reports of casualties and no sign of dead fish on the Essequibo but a net had been thrown across the narrow, twisting Omai river to keep contaminated fish in.
Ecologists were not satisfied. Taking up the mantle of the environmental movement, the small opposition party Working People's Alliance organised a "citizens' picket" yesterday outside the mining company's Georgetown headquarters.
The party called on the government of Prime Minister Sam Hinds to declare an environmental disaster, close down the mines completely and prosecute the operators.