Gold leaching causing animal deaths, misery in Migori

Nyatike gold mine

Women mine gold in Nyatike, Migori County, in May 2019. A number of animals in Kowuor village recently died after they drank from a stream that residents believe was contaminated by a nearby gold processing plant.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Ms Julietta Achola sits pensively under the shade in her compound. On September 23, she lost three cattle after they drank water from a seasonal stream poisoned by sodium cyanide from a nearby gold leaching plant.

“They must have ingested a very lethal chemical because one of the animals dropped dead immediately. Moments later, the other two started foaming at the mouth before dropping dead,” she told the Nation at her home in Kowuor, Nyatike Sub-county over the weekend.

Mzee Raphael Akongo, another resident, lost four bulls in a similar manner and at the same site.

“It seems the chemical was carried by run-off following heavy downpour. It was a huge loss since I solely depended on my four bulls for a living,” Mzee Akongo said.

His four bulls, which had foamed at the mouth and had blood oozing from their eyes and ears, were in critical condition.

Sparked outrage

The incident sparked outrage from the community, with members storming the nearby gold leaching site.

They demanded closure of the leaching plant, saying the September incident was the third one in a span of three months.

“We depend on this stream for all our domestic use due to water scarcity in the area and we risk losing lives if drastic measures are not taken,” a resident said.

On the spot are local gold leaching sites that use sodium cyanide, a poisonous chemical used in gold prospecting. Often, it finds its way into nearby streams whenever there is a downpour since most leaching sites lack proper disposal mechanisms.

Following the recent incident, the government has launched investigations into the operations of 150 gold leaching sites in the county.

The National Environment Complaints Committee (NECC) has already visited Kowuor village. NECC Secretary John Chumo said: “We received the complaints and there are several government bodies carrying out investigations. Once the reports are out, we are considering taking legal action against the firm,” Mr Chumo said.

The plant’s proprietors declined to comment, saying the matter was under investigation.

“We won’t allow investors to continue endangering people’s lives,” Mr Chumo said, adding they would seek legal redress for the affected residents.

Nyatike Sub-county Commissioner Paul Langat said they took samples from the affected animals, water and soil samples and results are yet to come out.

“The samples were taken to the Government Chemist in Kisumu,” Mr Langat said.

Both Mr Chumo and Mr Langat said the site proprietors had been given a deadline to build a perimeter wall to prevent animals from accessing the site. They are also required to build a water pan lined with polythene to prevent seepage to manage liquid and solid waste.

“We received complaints that workers are not provided with safety gear, and these will be covered in our investigations in other sites, which we believe have similar problems,” Mr Langat said, adding, a multi-agency team will ensure there is a thorough audit of all of the plants.

Similar complaints

Mr Chumo also said that the committee had received similar complaints from Narok, Siaya, Nandi and Kakamega counties where livestock deaths have been attributed to unregulated gold leaching sites.

Nyatike MP Tom Odege faulted the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) for issuing operational licences without conducting proper environmental assessment.

“It’s absurd that these plants have full operational licences, yet the government, through Nema, has not done proper environmental assessment. I’ve been insisting that gold mining in the area should be regulated and this is not the first time we’re witnessing such,” Mr Odege said.

He urged the government to temporarily shut the mines as environmental impact assessments are conducted. “If the government doesn’t address the issue, then residents will be forced to take matters into their hands and expel the proprietors,” he said.

In 2019, the government closed down over 40 gold mining and processing plants associated with powerful tycoons during a crackdown on those that have been flouting mining rules.