Disaster in waiting at Nandi’s Karebe mines

Karebe Gold Mine in Chemase, Nandi County, on September 25. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Instead, the multi-billion shillings investment that is now closed, has turned into a disaster in waiting.
  • Workers at the mining company have also claimed secret plans by powerful individuals who want to kick out the current investor at the expense of new investors.

If everything had gone as planned, Karebe Gold Mine, which is the largest of its kind in Kenya, could be part of the country’s efforts to jump-start its limping mining sector.

Instead, the multi-billion shillings investment that is now closed, has turned into a disaster in waiting.

At its tailings dam located at Kibisem in Tinderet constituency, Nandi County, lies an environmental risk of momentous proportions. So risky that if cyanide, one of the world’s deadliest poisons used in the mining of gold, spills out, it might take decades to clean up the mess.

“You wouldn’t even want to contemplate on what will happen here if the effluent continues to spill,” Karebe’s managing director David May warns, saying that they are on red alert.

Although it’s a situation which can be handled, the County Government of Nandi and the Ministry of Mining seem not so much concerned about the impending danger.

The proprietors of Karebe have been fighting numerous battles in court since the Nandi county government refused to renew their licence in 2017 after the expiry of a 10-year land lease agreement with residents.

Things took an ugly turn in February when a judge ordered it to close down with immediate effect after it lost the battle for the renewal of the lease.

This was despite the court being told that it required at least three years to neutralise the dangerous cyanide, a rapidly acting lethal agent.

Life-threatening disaster

Last month, Mr May wrote a letter to Mining CS John Munyes, saying that the danger of a life-threatening disaster was “very real and imminent”.

Karebe “can no longer be held responsible for any disaster that may result” from the dam, Mr May explained citing frustrations from the authorities.

Yesterday, Mr Munyes was not available for comment on the matter. However, Nandi county National Environment Management Authority (Nema) director Vincent Mahiva said in case of any hazard, Mr May and his team will be held responsible because they are the ones who are licensed.

“For years, they have been managing their tail dam well to ensure that cyanide does not spill over but the latest concern has been that since there is a land dispute, no monitoring has been taking place. In case of any eventuality, we will hold them responsible because they still have the licence. Our director-general had advised him to request the court to allow them access the land to contain the waste,” Mr Mahiva explained.

He added that until the time they hand over the site to another person with clear agreement on how it will be managed, they should ensure that no disaster happens.

However, Mr May says the firm is legally locked out of the land and needs the intervention of authorities. As the requests by Karebe continue to be ignored, the small community of Chemase is living on the edge of an ecological disaster that could kill hundreds should the poison dam break its banks.

Large quantities

Cyanide is used in the extraction of gold from low-grade ore by converting it to a water-soluble complex, but it is also one of the most poisonous and toxic chemicals known to mankind.

When introduced to the human body in large quantities, it prevents cells from using oxygen and eventually they die. It also affects the heart, the respiratory system and the central nervous system, leading to seizures, breathlessness and cardiac arrest.

In a letter to the Environment and Land Court in Eldoret on July 17, the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining noted the risks to residents and advised that Karebe be given five years to manage the waste. “Movement of water through the fine tailings material is slow and so the time it will take to leach out cyanide to acceptable concentrations is long,” noted Mr Colin Ngigi, an engineer at the directorate of mining.

He further advised that Karebe Mining should oversee the process, and that the government should acquire the land on which the poison dam is located “for purposes of legacy”.

However, Karebe says it has been denied access to the suit property, and in a letter to Mining PS Kirimi Kaberia, the firm argues that the 90 days it was given to exit the property have elapsed, and that it is “yet to get directions” from the Court of Appeal, to which it filed an application seeking an injunction against the ruling by the Environment court.

“The situation is dire as there is nobody controlling and monitoring the tailings dam,” notes the letter to Mr Kaberia, through the law firm Mohammed Muigai.

Mr May blames his woes on two senior Nandi County politicians and “another powerful leader from the region” .

He alleged that a county politician had approached the company in 2017 to fund his campaign and when they refused, their downfall began.

“They have accused us that we have not employed the locals, but out of our 400 employees, around 340 are from the area,” said Mr May.

Contacted by the Sunday Nation, Governor Sang did not respond to either our calls or text messages. But, while speaking in June when the Mining Cabinet Secretary held a meeting with the officials from both the gold firm and the county as well as the residents of Chemase, he dismissed claims that his government is frustrating Karebe gold mining company by denying it a land lease and a licence.

Karebe also accuses Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei of being used by some top political leaders in the Jubilee government to have the company kicked out of Kenya. Workers at the mining company have also claimed secret plans by powerful individuals who want to kick out the current investor at the expense of new investors.

The workers have petitioned President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Nandi County Government to intervene.

“Our jobs are at stake because of interference from powerful leaders who want the current investor kicked out,” Mr John Busienei, one of the workers, said.

Reporting by Bernard Mwinzi, Onyango K’Onyango and Nyambega Gisesa