Cyanide accident at Djibo dam in Burkina Faso: will the gold mines kill us before they save us (Part Two)

Welcome to part two of my exposé of the recent cyanide spill at the Djibo dam. Here’s Part One if you missed it.

Thank you to Simon Cross and Keith Smith for their excellent blog posts about this accident. Thanks also to those of you who have been tweeting and FBing your support. As you know, Google search rankings depend largely on incoming links. So simply linking to these articles will increase their page rank. Getting the word out is half the battle – Avocet may not respond to our calls for change but they may well respond to investor pressure. Just think of that – the 10 seconds you take to re-tweet a link to this article are 10 seconds that could change the world. Just use the Share Buttons at the bottom of this page.

The title of my series of articles is drawn from the title of Hyacinthe Sanou’s news report: Avant de nous sauver, l’or va nous tuer. (Before it saves us, gold will kill us). This may seem melodramatic but it accurately reflects the deep fear and unease with which the inhabitants of the Djibo region now view the Inata gold mine. What began as an enthusiastic scramble for jobs has turned to cynicism and resentment. Before the cyanide spill, relations between miners and locals were already at an all-time low, and now they have been thoroughly poisoned. More about that later.

Here’s a reminder of the accident we are talking about. The photograph is from Avocet’s official communique – it was taken just one hour after the incident occurred and shows the cyanide containers are partially submerged.

Cyanide containers submerged in downstream flow from Djibo dam
Photo from Avocet

In this article I will go all Erin Brockovich and tackle the question of corporate responsibility – in a word, blame. There is something not right about our blame culture, steeped as it is in litigation and finger-pointing. But in a case of near environmental disaster (or as we shall see, three near disasters) attributing blame is necessary and helpful. There is no use crying over spilled milk, but spilled cyanide is worth crying, tweeting, blogging and if necessary shouting from the rooftops about – if it means it doesn’t happen again.

In my correspondence with Angela Parr, Investor Relations Manager at Avocet Mining Ltd, she has been keen to stress that safe delivery of cyanide was part of Samsung’s contract and nothing to do with SMB (the Inata mining company, of which Avocet owns 90%). Here is her response to the article I posted yesterday about the accident.

Hi Steve.
Thanks for the opportunity to review.
I think the article is largely factually correct. However the one point that I think is ambiguous in the article is SMB’s level of responsibility relating to the incident. SMB is in no way contractually responsible for the delivery of cyanide. Delivery forms part of Samsung’s contract as SMB only take delivery of and responsibility for cyanide once it reaches the Inata mine site. SMB’s response to the situation was based on a sense of duty of civic care rather than on one of contractual responsibility. I hope you can appreciate the distinction.

I understand. SMB (the mining company) was in no way responsible for the cyanide whilst it was on the road, nor was it contractually obliged to go and investigate the cyanide spill. It sent a team to help with the damage assessment because it is a good corporate citizen, a veritable Ben and Jerry’s of the mining world.

It is good that SMB sent a team of specialists so quickly to the scene of the accident. It is commendable that they got the message out about the potential danger and embarked on water testing there and then. And that they lifted the cyanide containers out of the water before Vehrad even turned up. Gold star, SMB. Here is a picture they took on Sunday 31 July of one of the containers raised clear of the water on timber blocks.

Cyanide container at Djibo dam two days after the accident
Photo from Avocet

According to a narrow contractual definition of corporate responsibility, Avocet Mining (AVM) is in the clear. They probably can not be sued for any damage resulting from the Djibo cyanide spill, because safe delivery of the cyanide is Samsung’s job. But it is clear that Avocet Mining do have wider moral obligations to the people who live in the Djibo region. If Samsung’s delivery methods to Inata are (as we shall see) fundamentally unsafe, Avocet Mining will be keen to improve matters, as much as anything to avoid tarnishing the reputation of their company.

With this in mind, the CEO of Avocet Mining Brett Richards has initiated high-level discussions with his Samsung counterpart, and according to the official Avocet report on the Djibo dam debacle, these talks will address the need to:

  • Ensure that containers are improved in strength and rendered water-tight.
  • Improve the quality and training of drivers.
  • Establish emergency response measures in country to enable more rapid reaction and mobilization than occurred in this instance.

Let’s take those points one by one.

1. Ensure that containers are improved in strength and rendered water-tight

Shutting the container door after the cyanide has bolted. Still, this is the very least that is necessary in order to ensure that an accident of this kind doesn’t happen again.

I asked Paul Bateman, President of ICMI (International Cyanide Management Institute) about the strength of the containers used to transport cyanide to Inata:

We do not yet know the specific cause of the accident in Burkina Faso. Once that information is available, we will be in a better position to determine the extent to which non-compliance with the [Cyanide Code] and/or human error were contributing factors.

Avocet is not a Code signatory, and consequently the Inata Gold Mine is not subject to the Code. Therefore, the mine is not required to purchase cyanide from a Code-certified manufacturer, and ICMI has no information regarding the manufacturer of the cyanide used at the mine. Samsung is a sales agent for a number of cyanide manufacturers, and is considered under the Code as a “consignor/transporter” because it organizes and oversees supply chains consisting of contracted cyanide carriers. Since the packaging of cyanide is typically the responsibility of the manufacturer rather than the transporter, we are not able to comment further regarding its packaging.

The Cyanide Code an important initiative, especially when so much mining around the world uses cyanide in its treatment processes. But inevitably the effectiveness of such a code is dependent on the quality and thoroughness of its individual auditors.

2. Improve the quality and training of drivers

Anyone who knows Africa knows that this is an issue. I blogged some time ago about the dangers of bad roads and bad driving with particular reference to Burkinabe bus-drivers – many of whom have an inshallah attitude to risk. The same goes for truckers. With trucks carrying potentially lethal cargoes, you desperately need good, risk-averse drivers.

You also need good roads. The main problem with the Kongoussi to Djibo road is not the potholes. It is the deep horizontal ruts known here as ‘washboard’ or in French as escalier. The best driver in the world could lose control on the Kongoussi-Djibo road, and no amount of driver training can annul that basic fact.

I asked John Chung, the International Manager of Samsung, for a comment on the Djibo cyanide spill. Here is his reply:

As signatories of International Cyanide Management Code (“ICMC”), Samsung C&T and our service providers are committed to making our best efforts to ensure safe transportation of cyanide.

Samsung C&T and our inland logistics partners fully survey our transportation routes, and provide regular safety training to drivers. And while transporting cyanide, each consignment has an escort in the front and a convoy in the end for any emergency.

However, as can be seen in the recent incident, there are cases where we face unexpected road conditions.

Unexpected road conditions? Water flowing over the spillway of the north side of the Djibo dam? That is not unexpected. The dam overflows for three months of the year, every year, and has done since its construction. I am appalled that unexpected road conditions should be cited as a mitigating circumstance. If I had not already lost confidence in Samsung’s ability to safely manage the transportation of cyanide, that statement alone would do it.

But things are even worse than they appear. Near the end of the Inata mine director’s official report comes this particularly chilling statement:

Avocet Mining/SMB will be discussing [the Djibo accident] and two earlier incidents where cyanide trucks turned over due to driver error with SAMSUNG

When I first read that, it hit me like a Vehrad truck. This is not the first time that such an accident has happened. It is simply the first time that it has happened in water.

I emailed Angela Parr three times to ask about these earlier incidents, but at the time of posting this article she has not yet replied. As soon as she does, I will post her comment here.

3. Establish emergency response measures in country to enable more rapid reaction and mobilization than occurred in this instance.

One might have expected in-country emergency response measures to be in place already, particularly since both Samsung and Vehrad are signatories of the Cyanide Code which demands that just such measures be in place. Paul Bateman at the International Cyanide Management Institute has not yet received Vehrad’s detailed report on the accident, so he did not comment directly on their culpability. He did say this:

In recognition that even the best procedures and training cannot eliminate human error, equipment failures and other causes of accidents entirely, the Code has an extensive emergency response component that requires operations to have appropriate plans and capabilities to act in the event of a cyanide incident or accident. The additional information expected from Vehrad should help us determine if the response was consistent with its established procedures.

So we are waiting for Vehrad’s report of what caused the driver to crash his truck. I would advise them not to use Samsung’s phrase ‘unexpected road conditions’ in their report. There was nothing unexpected about the road conditions on the day of the accident, nothing at all. I wonder how fast the truck was going…

Notes and Recommendations

Brett Richards, CEO of Avocet Mining Ltd, is a former professional ice hockey player. He has the drive and bullishness that investors like, and his company has its sights firmly set on adding as many ounces as it can in West Africa. Here is my open letter to Mr Richards, representing the pleas of the people I meet on the streets of Djibo every day.

  1. Take responsibility for the effects of your company’s activities
  2. Fact: if there were no gold mine at Inata, there would be no cyanide trucks travelling on bad roads in the north-west of Burkina Faso. There would be no cyanide to spill on roads, no cyanide to spill in water, no cyanide to terrify local people and send them into a month-long psychosis. Please sign up as soon as possible to the Cyanide Code. It is the experience of ICMI that the Cyanide Code is most effective when all parties, including the mine, the transporter and the manufacturer, are certified in compliance with the Code.

  3. Listen to the voices of local people.
  4. You must be more relieved than anyone that nobody has died as a result of the cyanide spill. But please read the Burkinabe comments here and here and understand the depth of local ill-feeling against your mine.

  5. Consider alternatives to cyanide
  6. Your mine is the rising star of West African gold mining. Financially you are in for a stellar year. Your recent drilling results were fantastic and you are all set to double your production at Inata. The price of gold is high and set to rise even further. Why not celebrate all this by kicking the cyanide habit for good? Norman Haber of Haber, Inc. has developed a new method of mineral extraction using non-toxic, cost-effective alternatives. The Haber Gold Process (HGP) has undergone preliminary and follow-up testing by mining engineering groups, which have concluded that HGP results in more gold recovery over a shorter period of time than the cyanide leaching processes with a cost comparable to, or less than, cyanide leaching.

  7. Tarmac the road between Kongoussi and Djibo
  8. If you persist in using cyanide to extract your gold, please ensure that the road between Kongoussi and the gold mine is properly tarmacked before allowing cyanide deliveries to continue. Recently the people of Djibo staged a two-day road-block to protest against the condition of the Kongoussi-Djibo road. It is dangerous for donkey carts carrying firewood, let alone heavy goods vehicles carrying cyanide. Please read my article in the Guardian Weekly about the Djibo Road Protest.

    All good wishes to you and to your colleagues in London and Inata.

    Yours sincerely,

    Stephen Davies

    Continue to Part 3.

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Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

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