Settling mercury issue quickly

Something would appear to have given over the past few days after the state entities that share responsibility for the administration of the various facets of the gold industry in Guyana – the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Guyana Geology & Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) ‒ had come under further public pressure over the issue of mercury emissions from gold processing by the GGB and its effects on the health of GGMC workers.

On Friday the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) released a statement stating that the issue of the danger posed to the health of GGMC workers on account of the mercury-related processing of gold in the same compound occupied by the workers had been dealt with long before and that the Ministry of Natural Resources had failed to implement a promised solution.  Thereafter we learnt that either some or all of the GGMC workers had walked off the job, an eventuality that may well have been on the cards for some time.

With hindsight, the best it seems that can be said about the authorities in this matter is that having been aware, for some time, of the health risks that have long attended the situation, its public pronouncements on the matter appeared to lack the warranted sense of urgency, given what had already been established as a safety and health emergency. That is something that needs to be explained by the Ministry.

One notes, for example, that while the Ministry’s statement of April 20 acknowledged “the threat of mercury emissions” and the consequential desirability of effecting “the closure of the laboratory attached to the Guyana Gold Board” the best it could do in terms of a time line for the relocation of the laboratory was that the relocation would happen “within the shortest possible time” which, in effect, is no time-frame at all. The Ministry is, after all, and by its own admission, seemingly still “scouting…suitable sites for both short and long-term solutions,” a pronouncement which, again, says little about the extent to which removing the workers from harm’s way is the first order of business. One might add that while we would assume that the Ministry is taking the health of the workers seriously, it is being less than persuasive in making that point. On the other hand it does not neglect to state – truthfully but somewhat awkwardly in the circumstances ‒ that “all parties (comprising the Review Committee attending to the matter) “recognized the critical contribution of gold to the Guyana economy.” Here, one wonders whether a correspondingly strong pronouncement on the importance of the well-being of the GGMC workers might not have spared the Ministry a great many image-management blushes.

As much from the standpoint of its image as from the perspective of good industrial relations practice the Ministry might have considered bringing the GPSU into the loop, so to speak, in order to reach a multi-stakeholder understanding on an enhanced safety and health regime which, at the same time, does not compromise the important business of gold processing. The union, we are told, is again seeking to engage on the matter of a long-term resolution of the issue and it seems, from our vantage point, that such an engagement would do no harm as long as it does not, in any shape or form, delay steps to remove the workers from harm’s way.

One assumes that neither the Ministry of Natural Resources nor the Government of Guyana, as a whole, would be unmindful of the fact that all of this is taking place in the full glare of the international mining community and against the backdrop of a heightened global sensitivity to environmental issues. Almost five years ago the Government of Guyana signed on to the legally binding Minamata Convention in October 2013 (ratifying it in September 2014) an international treaty specifically designed to protect human health and the environment from emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. So that setting aside the obligation which the Ministry has to the GGMC workers, the Government of Guyana, is bound as well by an international agreement that holds its feet to fire in this matter. It is a hurdle that should be surmounted without any delay beyond that which has been manifestly in evidence up until now.

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