A coalition of local and international environmental and civic organizations is calling for an independent assessment of safety conditions at a large open-pit gold mine in Kyrgyzstan where a worker was buried and presumed killed under a rock slide after a 200-meter mine wall collapsed Monday.
An appeal Wednesday by the Human Development Center (HDC) in Kyrgyzstan cited the death of 25-year-old Almaz Jakishev, from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, as the latest in a series of incidents requiring investigation at the Kumtor mine, operated by Canada's Cameco Corporation which owns a 30 percent stake in the mine.
Calls for an independent inquiry into the previous incidents, toxic spills which took place between 1998 and 2000, were rebuffed by the company.
"We must remember the troubled history of this mine," HDC officer Kalia Moldogazieva said Wednesday. "Any responsible operator would welcome such an [independent] audit; they should have nothing to hide."
The appeal was joined by the Mineral Policy Center (MPC), MiningWatch of Canada, and Budapest-based CEE Bankwatch which monitors projects funded or guaranteed by international financial institutions, including the World Bank's International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which support Kumtor alongside United States and Canadian export credit agencies.
Saskatchewan-based Cameco stressed that Kumtor Operating Company (KOC), its wholly-owned subsidiary that runs the mine, was cooperating fully with efforts by the government, which owns a 70 percent interest in the project, to investigate the accident.
"We're really focused on the government of Kyrgyzstan and their investigation by the state inspector," said Cameco spokesman Jamie McIntyre. "They have the authority to investigate this incident, as they have in the past." Given the size of the slide, the company said, it could take "several months" before the rubble is cleared.
Located at almost 4,000 meters above sea level in the remote Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the Kumtor mine is believed to be in the world's eighth largest gold field.
The US$360 million project, the largest foreign investment in Kyrgyzstan, represents nine percent of the country's total gross domestic product (GDP). Last year, it produced more than 750,000 ounces of gold, according to Cameco, and employed more than 1,500 people.
Almost immediately after it began commercial production in 1997, the mine was plagued by accidents, the worst of which took place in May, 1998, when a mine truck spilled nearly two tons of cyanide into the Barksoon River, which supplies both drinking and irrigation water for nearby communities and flows into Lake Issy Kul, the country's top tourist attraction.
While the number of deaths caused by the spill remains in dispute--official accounts vary from none to four--several thousand people were treated for rashes, sores, and other ailments in the following days and weeks, and more than 1,000 were hospitalized. In addition to creating panic and protests by the local population, the spill prompted vacationers to cancel their stays at the lake, dealing a severe blow to the local economy.
The fact that the company failed to report the spill for at least four hours contributed both to the extensive damage and to public distrust of the mine operation, according to the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law.
The disaster resulted in public pledges that the company would revise its Emergency Response Plan to ensure that local communities were given notice of accidents as soon as possible.
But KOC's repeated refusal to release the Plan publicly--as well as ongoing disputes over fair compensation after the 1998 cyanide spill, the impact of mine tailings on local streams and rivers, and the melting of permafrost at the mine site--has become a source of major contention between it and the local population, particularly after a second spill of 70 liters of nitric acid in July, 1998, and a third of 1.65 tons of ammonium nitrate in January, 2000, an incident which the company did not report to the responsible authorities until the following day.
Despite an attempt by KOC to forge trust between the local community and the mining operation by setting up a Community and Business Forum, the coalition of international groups is calling on the project's foreign backers to press the company to adopt an even more open attitude.
"In 1998, we went to the site at the request of civil society groups in Kyrgyzstan and members of parliament, [but] the company denied us access," said Stephen d'Esposito, president of the Washington-based MPC. "That was a mistake. Full disclosure is the only way to begin to address these issues in a constructive manner."
The international coalition plans to select an international audit team of both foreign and Kyrgyz experts and ask the company to provide full access to the site.
Cameco itself insists that it takes "corporate responsibility" very seriously in its operations, both in Canada and abroad. "To us, that means looking after the health, safety and well-being of our employees and the public, protecting the environment, and supporting and earning the respect of the communities near our operations."
OneWorld, July 11, 2002