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Kyrgyzstan: Cyanide Spill Offers Lessons

Prague, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A 36-year-old woman died in a hospital in eastern Kyrgyzstan yesterday reportedly from cyanide poisoning. The woman came from the Barskoon area where two weeks ago a truck belonging to the Kumtor Gold Mining operation overturned and spilled nearly two tons of sodium cyanide into the Barskoon River, which feeds into Kyrgyzstan's biggest lake -- Issyk-Kul.

Also yesterday, Michel Bernard, president of CAMECO Corp., a Canadian-based company which is the foreign partner in the Kumtor project, told a press conference in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek that reporting of the incident was exaggerated. He said that what he called "well-respected experts" had concluded that the spill will not present environmental hazards to the residents of the area or to the lake.

The Barskoon accident is one of the first serious accidents in gold mining in Central Asia. But the responses both of the company and of Kyrgyz officials exposed problems which might be relevant to other gold mining sites of the whole region.

American environmentalist Stephen D'Esposito says accidents with cyanide spills, such as the Kumtor spill, are increasing. He says that despite availability of other, perhaps more expensive but safer, technologies for refining gold, this highly poisonous chemical is widely used in many countries.

The Mineral Policy Center is a U.S.-based watchdog organization working to prevent environmental degradation and to encourage clean-up of past pollution caused by mining. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, D'Esposito, center president, said a number of problems arise when governments are partners in mining operations, particularly a conflict of interest that may end in taxpayers, rather than offending companies, bearing the cost of accidents and clean-ups. He put it this way: "In the U. S., for example, you don't tend to have governments as partners in mining operations, so there is a line between the regulator, the government, which looks after everybody's interests, and the company, which is looking at their specific financial and economical interests. In the U.S., the regulations are weak and it is not unusual that taxpayers have to pay for the clean-up. There are many countries where the government is a partner in mine development and that usually creates conflict of interest and problems, because it is hard to both have a financial stake and also adequately oversee the site and make sure that it is operating in a way that protects the community and the environment."

D'Esposito argues that the Kumtor project shouldn't be allowed to plunder natural resources at the taxpayer's expense.

He says: "If you want to create more oversight and environmental community protection, the government should not be a financial partner. If the government wants to receive a financial benefit from the mine, which it should, especially if it is on public land, it should put a kind of royalty or fee to make sure that the mining is operating in a way it should and that it is environmentally safe. That is typical for most states of the U.S., provinces in Canada and many countries: the governments put some kind of a fee so they share in the profit without actually being a partner."

D'Esposito also says:

"In situations, for example, in the U.S. where a spill like this occurs, the company has a responsibility to report to the government and to health officials. This is a legal obligation. But on top of that obligation, if you ask mining officials of Cameco whether they feel they have an ethical obligation to report about potentially life-threatening accidents or accidents that might impact the environment significantly, I think they would answer 'Yes.' Cyanide is a lethal chemical and everybody working with cyanide knows that. They should have welcomed the press and immediately released a press release. And the fact that they did not is irresponsible behavior."

Cyanide is used to separate gold from other elements. According to Haribon Foundation for Conservation of Natural Resources, in the Philippines, this is the cheapest and easiest way to refine gold. D'Esposito says that, although the mining industry claims that cyanide can be properly managed in modern pit mines, the number of accidents with this chemical is growing in the world.

He says: "It is only since the 1970s that the use of sodium cyanide as a leaching agent has become prevalent for gold mining. Prior to that, other technologies and techniques were used. So there is a very valid question which should be asked in this case as well: Do we need to be using this technology? There are other ways to mine gold. In the state of Montana here in the U.S., there are citizens' groups who are seeking to put on the ballot in November a referendum that would ban all future use of cyanide. The mining industry will say you can use cyanide safely, but there are an increasing number of examples where this isn't the case. Especially, when there is a situation where you have inadequate environmental regulations or the government is involved in the mine, a lot of problems occur. There is more at stake than just the industry's profit, as we've seen in the situation there."

Coincidentally, this week the Environmental Ministry of the Czech Republic is looking into allowing another Canadian company to develop mines in the Sumava, one of the biggest attractions in the country. Spokesman for the ministry, Petr Stepanek, told RFE/RL last week, that Minister Martin Bursik opposes the proposal of the Canadian company to use sodium cyanide to mine the gold.