New EPA chief aims to clean up rivers
Dealing with the pollution and degradation of hinterland rivers and waterways caused mainly by mining is a top priority for newly-appointed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Dr Vincent Adams.
“Our mission is to make sure we have the cleanest water and air—minimum contamination—as ever. The hinterland’s river pollution needs urgent addressing and we will put all of our resources at work,” Adams told Sunday Stabroek in an interview last week.
Noting that he has only been on the job for a few days, having taken up his appointment last Monday, he said he had not yet had the opportunity to meet with staff, or to tell them of his plans for the agency.
But plunging immediately into a workshop on improving industrial safety and environmental regulation, which was organised by the Mexican Embassy and ran from Monday to Wednesday of last week, Adams said he was able to hear first-hand, of some of the problems faced. In addition, from his own readings and analysis of research work done in Guyana on mining and its effects on hinterland communities, he believes that water pollution, especially in the hinterland, needs urgent attention by his agency.
“Fortunately for me, my first few days were spent at a Mexican Embassy training where I was able to meet some of my staff, interact, and learn of some the challenges of the agency and complaints received. I want to know now, as I work through planning, what are the major issues here. I have asked managers to provide me with all of the backlog work. They also have to state why there is a backlog and figure out a way to get rid of that and figure out how to prioritise. I am seeking feedback from the responsible manager on river pollution, contamination and degradation. If it is as bad as I think, I can promise I’ll get on it immediately,” he said.
“I must add that from what I gather so far, I think I understand what some of the priorities are, and contamination of waters in remote areas is one such priority. You may not understand my passion but water is very close to me because I am also a hydrologist. Many don’t know but early in my career, I worked for the Guyana Water Authority as a hydrological engineer. Clean water is near and dear to my heart and I will make this a priority. I expect it to come up in the list of issues but this is a priority for me,” he emphasised.
For decades, residents of hinterland communities, from Arau in Region Seven, Konawaruk in Region Eight and those in the Region One areas – where much gold mining is done - have lamented the contamination and degradation of their main sources of water; nearby rivers and creeks.
Last year, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), in sounding an alarm about the devastation occurring in Guyana’s rivers, had described the Puruni River as “a ruinous mess of tailings and devastation” for miles and said it was unnavigable for large stretches.
“Guyanese gold-mining effluent in the Cuyuni, added to that coming from Venezuela, spews poisoned yellow effluent into the Essequibo at Bartica in such volume as to discolour large stretches of this ‘mighty’ river’s Western shores. The Potaro, home of Kaieteur Falls has been so plundered for decades by mining that its course now has to be re-configured on the nation’s maps. Almost two decades ago, the then head of the Guyana Defence Force issued a wake-up call to the nation, declaring the Konawaruk River to be “dead”. The nation slept on and the rivers continue to die,” the human rights organisation had said, reporting on a visit to Region Seven.
“While many social and environmental challenges were raised during this visit, discussions were dominated by the threats to the rivers. Perhaps most startling of all, large stretches of the Upper Mazaruni itself between Jawalla and Imbaimadai, are in danger of becoming un-navigable in the current dry season even by canoe, much less outboard engines if the current reckless and illegal dumping of tailings along its banks continues unabated. Mining on this stretch of the Mazaruni River directly, and on the banks of rivers inland to a distance of thirty metres, although illegal, continues to flourish,” the GHRA added.
The human rights body believes that the threat of river pollution to Guyana’s fledgling eco-tourism industry could be terminal and pointed out that swimming on the western side of the Essequibo, where most eco-lodges are located, is in jeopardy along with sports, fishing, yacht harbours and even bird-watching.
Over the years, the Stabroek News has reported on the plight of villagers from hinterland communities and successive governments have promised redress but to no avail. Mercury contamination of rivers and other waterways is also a growing concern.
Only recently, villagers from Yakishuru in Region One, highlighted to Stabroek News, their daily struggle where a prominent miner diverted a section of the main Ianna River to his operations. “One time ago you could go, wash, bathe and get water to cook from the river but now it cannot even be used to wash. This part of the Barama River is blocked by waste mud from miners’ pits. We have complained to the GGMC (Guyana Geology and Mines Commission) so many times and they are not doing anything about it. The thing is there is a diversion of the Ianna River which the GGMC can clearly see because they have to go through there to monitor dredges there,” Brian Smith told this newspaper.
“We sent pictures, we sent videos, and we complained, we talked and cried but nothing is being done. You cannot buy water in this place all the time. Things are very expensive. From the time stocks come, it gone, especially (in the) dry season. The miners don’t care because they and some of the GGMC people are friends, and you may tell Georgetown one complaint but they can’t do anything, they have to depend on what the people here tell them and them not telling them what we are facing,” Smith said.
Adams was told of the numerous complaints received, and he said he was not shocked at the negative changes in the hinterland. He believes that bringing relief and even alleviating the problem, requires more personnel out in the fields to assist with stringent enforcement of environmental laws.
“There has to be stringent enforcement and one of the things I told the staff [is] that my style is to make sure people are more out in the fields. There is work here at the head office of course, but people need to be out in the fields; analysing, educating and enforcing. I am promising that we are going to have more people, more frequently out where operations are being conducted,” Adams said.
But he was also quick to note the difficulty faced in going into remote areas. “You can appreciate that there are indeed some challenges with logistics because Guyana’s geographical make up is very unique. Getting to those places and getting the needed personnel required for the work, the agency will need to invest in the required resources, but we have to start somewhere. We have to begin work, and soon, so that [when] we put in for a certain budget, we have a record of what we are doing and the successes of those exercises as justification for what we need. It is not going to be a walk in the park but we have to start and start now,” he declared.
Reflecting on his younger days in his homeland, Adams told of a pristine and untouched hinterland environment where the indigenous people of this country once thrived. “At one time, I know people could drink from the rivers without worry. Today, and as the person you quoted from, rightfully said, you cannot wash your clothes with the water moreso drink it; that is the reality. The aquatic life was out of this world and people used to sell Morocut, one of the sweetest fishes I believe, to get an income. Most of that is ruined. So it is going to take some resources, transportation, vehicles, boats, etcetera but it is a priority that people are out there monitoring and whatever problem is taken care of, what is reasonably possible,” he said.
“While we put all these plans together and formulate a model plan for the agency, which will obviously cater for the emerging oil and gas sector, we have to simultaneously deal with what I feel is urgently needed. We can’t have people out there suffering… because of a few callous miners who only seek profits. We will make our priorities known, looking not only at the oil producers but the entire country and their needs. Plans will be made to have that dealt with in an expeditious
Turn to page 22
Dr Vincent Adams (DPI Photo)