tan005 Tanzanian gold mine pollution causing deaths

Tanzanian gold mine pollution causing deaths

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Misanet.com / IPS, 8 May - Tanzania is fast becoming one of Africa's leading gold producers - to the anxiety of villagers who say pollution from the mines is killing people, livestock, and wildlife. Toxic chemicals used to extract gold had leaked into their drinking water.

Gold exports have increased from about three million US dollars in 1998 to 120 million US dollars last year, thanks in part to new mining laws designed to encourage foreign investment. Tanzania is now the third largest producer in Africa, after South Africa and Ghana. 

That appears to mean nothing to Tanu Mwita, who said his wife died after bathing in a stream near a dam built to hold back mining waste in this northwestern district near Lake Victoria. 

Mwita is one of some 600 people who live in the farming community of Nyakabale just north of the Geita gold mine, a joint venture between Ashanti Goldfields of Ghana and South Africa's Anglo-American. He said his wife, Monika Tanu-Richard, died less than 24 hours after bathing in the stream following heavy rains last January. She left behind four children less than eight years old. 

- She swelled up, was itching all over... and turned pinkish red, Mwita said. "After she died, the District Medical Officer and National Environment Management Council took some tests and brought them to Dar es Salaam, but I haven't heard anything since then." 

Villagers said they believe Tanu-Richard's demise, and the deaths of local livestock, was related to the 220-square-kilometre Geita gold mine, which started operating in June 2000. They said the incidents coincided with heavy rains that caused mining waste to overflow from the 82-hectare dam, into nearby streams. 

Mining waste is called tailings and typically contains sodium cyanide, a toxic chemical used to extract gold from ore. There are dozens of documented cases worldwide of tailings dams leaking, overflowing, or breaking and releasing toxins into the environment.

Nyakabale residents, however, have only questions. "Whenever we report the deaths of cattle or health problems, samples of the water, people, or cattle are taken but we never hear anything," said shepherd Stefano Lufungulo. "People are really worried."

The first unusual deaths occurred shortly after the Geita mine began operating, Lufungulo recalled. A family of four died after eating a dying rabbit they had caught near the tailings dam. Since then, a number of women have had miscarriages.

- We started putting the pieces together between the deaths of the people, the cattle, and the heavy rains, Lufungulo said. "And we think it must have something to do with the mine since this has never happened before the mine was here." The mining company reinforced the dam wall after the deaths were reported, Lufungulo acknowledged. All the same, dead fish and frogs continue to wash up on the banks of the stream.

Lufungulo said 16 of his cattle and two sheep also had perished. Geita paid him the equivalent of about 1,000 US dollars for the loss of livestock. The company made clear it accepted no responsibility for the deaths, he added, but wanted simply to act as a good neighbour.

Local authorities have since told the villagers not to use water from streams near the mine for drinking or bathing, and not to harvest crops planted along the water's edge.

Tundu Lissu, an attorney with the Lawyers Environmental Action Team (LEAT), said he has been concerned for several years about impacts the mine could have on nearby villages and Lake Victoria. In 1999, Lissu wrote a report warning that sodium cyanide might leak into nearby lakes and streams, poisoning the water. His report had been commissioned by a nearby cotton company worried about the impact of mining on cotton crops.

- The description of the deaths and other health problems reported by the villagers of Nyakabale are consistent with the symptoms associated with cyanide poisoning, he said. "The government has failed to protect its citizens and the companies, whose shares are traded in stock markets worldwide, are profiting from the destruction."

The National Environment Management Council, however, is less certain that mining is to blame for the local problems. After the cattle deaths were reported, the Council sent a team to take samples from the dead animals and the nearby stream.

Esther Kerario, acting director general of the Council, said the resulting report has yet to be released to local authorities and the public but that scientists may have found high levels of the agricultural pesticide Thiodan in the water. "Thiodan is not used in this area, so we are not sure what caused the deaths," Kerario said, adding that a regional committee was investigating further.

- If the mine is found to be the cause of the deaths, critical measures will be taken, she said. 

Clement Msalangi, corporate affairs manager at the Geita Gold Mining Ltd. head office in the capital, Dar es Salaam, said it would be premature to comment before the Council officially released its findings.

While residents of Nyakabale await answers in the mysterious deaths of loved ones and livestock, however, the Geita mine has become the object of another enquiry - this one into alleged corruption. The Tanzanian government last month began examining reports that people had not been properly compensated after being forced to relocate so the mine could open.

According to Geita Gold Mining, 857 displaced people had not received compensation although the company had given government officials the money needed to make the payments in 1999. Company Managing Director Harry Michael told parliament recently that "some government officials, in their lust for money," were to blame. The government's Prevention of Corruption Bureau is investigating.


By Danielle Knight


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