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Guyana in Uproar Over Cyanide Spill

August 25, 1995

OMAI, Guyana (AP) _ A gold mining company reported that more than 800 million gallons of cyanide-laced water gushed from a holding pond into two major rivers before the leak could be sealed Thursday.

The spill _ the second in four months from the mine’s slurry pond _ has provoked an uproar in Guyana, a former British colony tucked between Venezuela and Suriname on the northeastern rim of South America.

President Cheddi Jaggan has declared the area an environmental disaster zone and requested international assistance.

Omai Gold Mines Ltd. said about 838 million gallons had escaped in the spill, which started Sunday when a retaining wall broke.

The mine will remain closed for at least three months to repair the damage to the mine’s open pit, intentionally flooded to reduce the hemmorhage into the rivers, the company’s general manager, Rejean Gourde, told reporters.

In a written statement, the company estimated that up to 2,000 pounds of cyanide went into the Omai River, a tributary of the much larger Essequibo River. The mine is about 100 miles southwest of Georgetown, the capital.

The rivers provide drinking water for many residents and for livestock and wild animals. Fish and shellfish from the rivers are important foods for many.

In the first few hours, the cyanide level in the escaping slurry was between 25 to 30 parts per million, but the average level was much lower over the subsequent five days, Gourde, the company manager, said.

Golden Star Resources Ltd., a Denver-based gold exploration and production company, holds a 30 percent stake in the mine and Cambior Inc., based in Toronto, holds 65 percent. The remaining five percent is held by Guyana’s government.

David Fagin, chief executive officer of Golden Star, said in a telephone interview from his Denver office that although the amount of cyanide slurry which entered the two rivers is significant, it won’t have a long-term impact on the region.

``Cyanide is a rapidly deteriorating substance and it will just be a matter of days, if not hours, before the substance is released from the river and into the air,″ Fagin said.

He said experts had told him that due to the nature of cyanide’s rapid decomposition, no cleanup of the river was needed.

This is the second spill from the slurry pond this year. A much smaller spill occurred in May.

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