Dead fish and acid pollution point to cyanide in stream

By Jerry Mensah-Pah
Paul Ayensu and members of the Concerned Farmers Association of Teberebie.

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When farmer Paul Ayensu finished work on Friday, September 14, he went down to a nearby stream to wash up, as he does every day after work in his village, Teberebie. But on this day as he finished washing his skin immediately began to itch, and he realized something was wrong. He started looking at the stream and saw dead fish. He then went to look at another nearby stream, the Awonabe, and found more dead fish.

Having completed a training program with the environmental and human rights organization WACAM, partly funded by Oxfam America, Ayensu said he could tell what had happened: "WACAM has taught me how to identify a polluted stream," he said. Ayensu then went to alert others in Teberebie that there was a cyanide spill in the streams that supply water and fish for him and about 100 families that live along them.

Ayensu's colleague Emilia Amoateng, leader of the Concerned Farmers' Association of Teberebie, immediately started an investigation. Knowing that cyanide is used to separate gold from ore in the mining projects surrounding Teberebie, she centered her investigation on the polluted streams near the south gate of Gold Fields Ghana mining company, and behind the waste piles of AngloGold Ashanti Iduapriem Mines. However Gold Fields has a drain from its tailings dam (a waste storage area) that runs into the stream. She also found that BARBEX Technical Services, a chemical supply company to the various mines in the area, has also constructed a drain from its warehouse into the stream. An accidental cyanide spill from either of these sources would therefore enter the streams quite easily. Recent heavy rains increased the likelihood that water overflowing from these sites would carry any spilled chemicals into the waters.

Moses Ayuba, the district program officer for Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said water tests had shown extremely high levels of acidity, but that he was unable to identify the cause of the acid in the river. He said that further testing on fish and water should help identify the source of the pollution.

Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, the director of WACAM, said that the pollution represented a serious public health problem. "Some people who mistakenly went swimming in the river had their skin peeled off," he said. "Those who drank the polluted water and ate some of the fish are having serious stomach problems. We have helped seven of them get medical attention."

Owusu-Koranteng went on to say that the mining and chemical supply companies have been reluctant to take responsibility for the pollution. "The mining companies and EPA initially tried to push the blame on 'galamsey' [small-scale mining] activities and later shifted the blame to chemical fishing." He went on to say that chemical fishing is unusual in this area, and in any case would never be done during the rainy season when the rivers are high. He also said that people living near the Barbex Technical Services had been previously warned by the company not to drink from the river, and were permitted to take tap water from the company.

Villagers in Teberebie are now calling on the EPA to help them defend their right to live in a clean environment, and are planning a demonstration to bring media attention to this incident.