Gold mining is a major economic sector. Prior to the discovery of oil, it was the country’s largest foreign exchange earner. The country produced almost 642,000 ounces of gold last year and gold exports brought in US$876 M in foreign exchange, more than three times what Guyana is expected to earn this year from oil.
The gold mining sector however is not as glittery as it appears. The industry has very poor environmental and safety standards and the artisanal, small and medium-scale gold mining operations are not entirely at fault.
Large-scale miners, including foreign conglomerates, have less than stellar records when it comes to environmental standards. One of the world’s most tragic mining environmental accidents occurred in Guyana at Omai Gold Mines in 1995. The disaster led to toxic tailings being discharged into Guyana’s rivers.
Compounding the environmental concerns is the emergence of evidence which now points to issues about industrial safety. Last October, a geologist working at a foreign-owned gold mining company was killed when the mining pit in which he was working collapsed, burying him under debris.
Yesterday, this newspaper referred to a report which it saw and which concluded that the mining company was responsible for the accident. The report noted that the mining company had failed to provide a safe, sound, healthy and secure working environment and that this was a significant factor in the geologist‘s death. The company, through one of its spokespersons, however denied knowledge of the report. It contended that it had been absolved of responsibility by reports from two government agencies.
Foreign companies are allowed to escape greater scrutiny of their operations because of the fragmented nature of environmental, health and safety regulations. A number of agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Occupational Health and Safety Authority of the Ministry of Social Protection, have responsibility for regulating the mining sector and often there are overlaps in their responsibilities. These overlaps could result in conflicting reports which could reduce the effectiveness of environmental, health and safety compliance.
The government’s approach to investigating related incidents appears to be uncoordinated and disjointed. At present, investigations can be undertaken by any number of agencies. The Occupational Safety and Health Department of the Ministry of Social Protection, for example, has powers to request reports attesting to the integrity of mine construction. Whether it has the technical capabilities, however, judging from its wide remit for occupation safety, to undertake an assessment of the causes of a mining accident is not clear. The Environmental Protection Agency is authorized under the Environmental Protection Act to regulate activities in the mining sector, but its capacity to investigate environmental damage and mining safety is limited.
The agency has been experiencing problems in recruiting skilled-Guyanese. Last year, it was reported the EPA had advertised for a number of positions, including petroleum, geological and environmental engineers. Despite receiving hundreds of applications, there were concerns about the availability of persons with the required skills and experience. In short, there were many applications but few who could be considered suited for the positions.
The Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) is the principal agency engaged in the management and regulation of the gold mining sector. The GGMC has responsibility for ensuring compliance with health, safety and environmental standards in the mining industry. It should therefore be accorded the lead status in undertaking investigations into mining accidents until such time as a multi-agency approach is undertaken into all mining accidents.
If the environmental, and occupation and health safety situation is to be improved within the mining sector, greater attention will have to be paid to streamlining investigations into mining safety and environmental standards. The present approach which allows more than one agency to investigate a single accident can lead to fragmented investigations and conflicting findings. This cannot be helpful in holding mining companies accountable for mining accidents.
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