Many Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) workers yesterday refused to turn up for work at the agency’s Brickdam headquarters, where the operations of the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) laboratory, which have ignited safety concerns, continued unhindered.
Almost all of the workers were directed by their managers to leave work indefinitely last Friday as the GGB was still burning gold at lab, which is located in the compound.
The workers have said that the mercury emissions from the gold amalgam have made the environment unsafe and the recent deaths of two workers, as a result of kidney failure, have ratcheted up fears.
After last Friday’s walkout, the Ministry of Natural Resources, in a statement, had emphasised its commitment to relocating the GGB’s lab “within the shortest possible time.”
With workers insisting on the lab’s operations being halted as a precondition for their resumption of work and Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman saying that it could not be done, most of the workers did not turn up for work yesterday, while the ones who did turned back and went home.
When Stabroek News visited the Brickdam office yesterday, a worker, who was waiting on a taxi to return home, explained that he was not returning to work until the situation is solved. He emphasised that not only do the workers want the GGB to stop the burning of gold but there is also a need for a massive cleanup activity that will ensure that there are no traces of mercury left anywhere around or near to the buildings.
“I didn’t come here with it [high levels of mercury in the blood], so I shouldn’t be leaving with it,” the man said, while pointing out that tests have indicated that he has an abnormally high level of mercury in his blood.
As the morning progressed, more workers continued to stream out of the building. Some were relocated to the agency’s Subryanville office. While some were hesitant to speak, most of them explained that they do not feel safe working in the compound and they have been given directives from their superiors to stay away until definitive actions are taken to address the troubling situation.
Representatives of the new workers’ union, the Guyana Civil Servants and General Workers Union, which is being led by Gregory Gaspar, were also present in front of the GGMC Office.
According to one of the union’s representatives, Unata De Freitas, while the body was only certified in February, it is making representation requested by the workers. “There have been no definitive moves to shut down the burning activities at the Guyana Gold Board and we could no longer stay in such an environment. We couldn’t put the staff to stay under those unsafe conditions. The thing is, it is not just the burning but also the clean-up exercise that has to be done. So, for the staff to return to the working environment, they have to have the assurance that not only the burning has ceased but there has been a clean-up,” De Freitas explained.
The GGB had hired Kaizen Environmental Services to conduct tests to ascertain whether the mercury emissions were at a worrying level and were dangerous to the workers. Subsequently, both Chairman of the Gold Board, GHK Lall and Trotman told a press conference that the reports showed that the emission levels were not worrying.
However, De Freitas emphasised that continuous checks have been made by the GGMC’s Environmental Division, which has found that the levels of mercury are “way above the acceptable level.”
“We can’t validate any results or any reports coming from Kaizen. We don’t know where Kaizen is coming from or the accuracy of their instrument. We cannot put our assurance or the safety of the workers in the hands of Kaizen,” De Freitas added.
She said that she has had a meeting with Commissioner of the GGMC Newell Dennison, in which it was revealed that no further developments surrounding the burning of the gold have occurred. Additionally, they have not received any positive feedback from either the Gold Board or the Ministry of Natural Resources.
She said that the workers will only return if the ministry can convince them that they have state-of-the- art equipment, which was recommended for them to acquire years ago, and that they are given assurances that there are no mercury residues left in the buildings.
“The mercury level in the blood of the staff shows clearly that it is as a result of accumulation. It’s not only now coming up. We’ve had assurances in the past and because we have been desensitised by those who we thought were responsible enough to feed us the right type of information business kept on as usual. Very recently, in March, we had a collapse of part of the chimney of the Gold Board and their personnel were totally unaware. The GGMC staff witnessed what was happening and asked for the activities to shut down and that’s what sparked this whole thing about getting tested,” she explained.
De Freitas and another worker explained that while tests were done in the past, not all the workers were tested and most of the times they were not made privy to their results.
She added that the death of one of the GGMC’s workers last Thursday raised more concerns. While the employee, Dwayne De Jonge, reportedly died of kidney failure, De Freitas noted that the workers all believe it is related to the high levels of mercury in his blood. She explained that the man, who was in his early 30s, was tested for mercury in his blood and it was revealed that his level was at level 11.
Putting that into context, she emphasised that the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) considers anything above level 3 as an industrial accident.
In addition to De Jonge, she noted that another man who had been working in the compound for more than a decade, Leroy Greene, also died from kidney failure earlier in the year.
“That’s two deaths for the year and both are related to kidney failure. One guy [Greene] worked in the carpentry workshop, which is directly downstream of the mercury fumes. This is also what drove persons to take more definitive actions because we don’t know who’s going to be next and no one wants to be a statistic,” she added.
Above normal levels of mercury can cause mood swings, nervousness, irritability and other emotional changes, insomnia, headache, abnormal sensations, muscle twitching, tremors, weakness, muscle atrophy and decreased cognitive functions.
Further exposure to mercury can also cause kidney malfunction and respiratory failure, which can both result in death.
De Freitas said that she believes the situation is not being taken as serious as it should and when she listened to Trotman’s statements she was dissatisfied and was of the opinion that they are “putting a few dollars over the staff.”
“We want the public to know that management is not accepting this. We are actually seeking some legal advice to map out our next action because we are not getting a favourable response from the ministry,” she said.
Lall confirmed that the Gold Board and its lab are still operating and that the absence of the GGMC workers will not significantly affect their operations. He also noted that they are actively seeking an intervention and emphasised that relocating the Gold Board is not an easy task given all the factors that have to be considered, including security.
Trotman on Saturday told this newspaper that that he empathised with the workers but the country could not afford to have the lab out of operation. “I am not angry with them for feeling that way. If I were in their position, I would react the same. In fact, I am definitely not comfortable with having the lab operational under these circumstances but currently gold is our main foreign exchange earner. If I could close it [the lab] tomorrow I would but I can’t,” he explained.