Kyrgyzstan: Fears Over Gold Mine Safety

Tragic accident at gold mine prompts calls for independent inquiry.

Kyrgyzstan: Fears Over Gold Mine Safety

Tragic accident at gold mine prompts calls for independent inquiry.

International organisations are demanding an investigation into health and safety procedures in Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine after a worker was killed.

A 250-metre pit wall collapsed on 25-year-old Almaz Jakishev on July 8, and his body has yet to be found. A government commission has now been set up to look into the tragedy.

The mine has been operating since 1992, when Canadian firm Cameco signed an agreement with the Bishkek authorities to develop the Kumtor area. The state and the company both invested heavily, backed by loans and guarantees from major international financial organisations.

Local and international ecologists have accused the Kumtor Operating Company, KOC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cameco responsible for the operation of the mine, of failing to make safety a priority, and say the latest tragedy confirms their suspicions.

The Kumtor field has helped make Kyrgyzstan the third-most important gold mining state in the CIS and its proceeds make up a tenth of the republic's gross domestic product, GDP.

Kumtor is located in the north-eastern of the country, on Lake Issyk Kul's southern shores. This is a seismically active zone, in a permafrost area some 4,000 metres above sea level, which contains more than 500 tons of precious metals. Last year, it produced a record 753,000 ounces of gold.

The death of Jakishev is not the first major accident in the mine's history. Four years ago, 70 litres of nitric acid were spilled at the town of Tokmok, 60 km from Bishkek, and in January 2000 more than 1.5 tons of ammonium nitrate leaked as it was being transported by truck.

The most serious incident occurred in May 1998, when a lorry carrying cyanide nitrate to the mine turned over on a mountain road and poured almost two tons of toxins into the Barskaun river. Several local people subsequently died of poisoning and dozens were hospitalised. Investigations show sickness and mortality rates rose sharply in the region after the accident.

Ironically, the latest tragedy happened only two days after KOC staged a tenth anniversary conference in the Bishkek Hyatt hotel, in which the themes of labour protection and safety featured strongly.

KOC manager Larry Dressler assured his large audience that work safety was a priority and claimed the company's procedures had "reached levels that exceed corresponding progress made in the mining industry in the United States and Canada".

After the latest accident, the company said it had taken "appropriate precautionary measures", blocking access to the pit and stopping mining work.

But although Cameco representatives assured the public that KOC was capable of dealing with the crisis, the accident has revived fears over safety in the gold field.

Kalia Moldogazieva, director of local non-governmental organisation Tree of Life, told IWPR that Cameco should allow an independent investigation into conditions at the pit. "Any responsible company would welcome such an examination. They shouldn't have anything to hide," she said.

Other ecological NGOs have also called on KOC to be more open. The Washington-based Mineral Policy Centre, Canada's MiningWatch and the Central and Eastern European Bankwatch demanded on July 10 an independent review of conditions in the mine.

The groups all demanded access to the pit and have also requested data on ecological monitoring, an investigation into the effect of industrial waste on surrounding streams and lakes and the release of plans to clean the area after the mine is closed in 2008.

Tynara Shaildaeva, head of KOC's internal communications, said heavy rain could have been to blame. "It may have eroded and softened the walls of the pit," she said.

A spokeswoman for MiningWatch told IWPR that the latest pit accident "shows the company's evaluation of the geological situation in the mine may be wrong. And if this is the case, what else is wrong?"

Kubat Otorbaev is an independent journalist in Bishkek

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