On Friday, the opposition PPP issued a statement expressing concern at the deaths in recent months of four employees of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC). Two of these persons died in recent days.
The backdrop for the PPP’s concern was the ongoing controversy over whether the longstanding presence in the GGMC’s Brickdam compound of the gold purifying lab of the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) and emissions of mercury from it had led to serious poisoning of employees and worse, contributed or caused deaths via kidney failure and other maladies. The PPP called for all steps to be taken to ensure the protection of employees and for full information to be provided to them on the situation at the lab.
Following the refusal in April of GGMC workers to enter the compound, the GGB lab was relocated. However, concerns remain about the health of GGMC workers and the safety of the Brickdam building. As an aside, it must be said that no matter where the lab is currently sited, the anxieties about possible ill effects on workers and others in the vicinity and the environment have to be addressed.
In a swift response on Friday to the PPP, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) described the party’s press release as curious – a curious description for what is a deadly serious matter. The MNR said that it wished to place on record that no official report had been received about these deaths being mercury related and that it would await a report from the GGMC on this. MNR added that there is simply no existing empirical data which establishes that mercury is responsible for the deaths of miners and GGMC workers in recent times. However, it said that efforts are already in train to scientifically establish whether there is such a link. No effort and no expense will be spared in pursuit of the truth and the protection of the workers, it added.
Significantly, MNR however went on to acknowledge that workers had been exposed to mercury.
“GGMC is a decades old institution and so too the use of mercury in mining, which has straddled several political administrations. Miners and workers of the GGMC and the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) have for many years been exposed to mercury at various levels and times both in the hinterland and in the city because of its widespread use in the amalgamation of gold. In the case of the workers of GGMC and the GGB,
they have been affected through no fault of their own. With the signing and ratification of the Minamata Convention for the eradication of the use of mercury in mining, the Government of Guyana intends to address this matter frontally”.
Given all of the anecdotal information surrounding the deaths of the four GGMC workers, the concerns raised about the health of other workers and actual testing which showed elevated levels of mercury in the blood of some of those who labour in the GGMC compound where the lab was previously located, there is a distinct possibility that there is a serious health and safety issue in the compound of the GGMC.
MNR’s press release on Friday has done nothing to assuage public concerns about the possible long-term detrimental effect of the lab’s gold purifying on the health of GGMC’s workers. Were it not for the PPP statement, the public might have been none the wiser that other deaths had occurred as neither the GGMC nor MNR made this information public. Given the high concern among GGMC employees about their health and the public’s awareness of the problem at the lab, it is unacceptable that the MNR and GGMC did not disclose the deaths to the public. Had they done so, perhaps they might have been able to limit the further concerns that have now arisen.
Absent from the MNR press release on Friday is any substantial assurance that the deaths would be rigorously probed to determine whether there was any evidence of mercury exposure. Two of the deaths occurred several months back but the MNR has provided no information on what forensic examinations were done and what the autopsies concluded. MNR has not said whether expert help was sought on mercury poisoning so that a second opinion could be provided. Following the recent deaths, MNR has not said whether any toxicological or tissue samples were taken. With the consent of their families, the deaths of the four men could have led to a careful examination of their medical histories and activities at the GGMC to determine whether there were similar symptoms and the possibility of exposure to mercury within the confines of the compound.
In recent weeks MNR, the GGMC and the GGB have tried various assuaging strategies including the hiring of a Trinidadian firm to test employees and areas in the vicinity of the GGMC for mercury contamination. None of this has convinced the workers and their representatives that all is well. The additional deaths that have occurred will naturally make them even more dubious about what is happening on Brickdam.
Given all that has transpired it is no longer possible that the MNR, GGMC and GGB can be entrusted with ensuring the safety of the workers in the compound. This must be taken out of their hands and handled by the institutional bodies that are purpose-built for this task like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Department of the Ministry of Social Protection. The OSH Department has been largely missing from any inquiry into mercury poisoning at GGMC and it is unclear what role that the EPA has been playing in such matters.
Ultimately, the government has to assure employees of the GGMC and those in its environs that their health is not at risk from the operations of the GGB lab that was previously located there. All employees and those nearby must be immediately tested for mercury and those with abnormal levels must be provided with whatever medical support is necessary.