Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The DayLight and is republished as a result of a partnership with Daily Observer.
By Varney Kamara, The DayLight
During the early morning hours of Monday last week, Mustapha Pabai, the town chief of Jikando, received a call from a neighbor that rivers in the area may have been poisoned.
Pabai learned that dead fishes were floating in the Varwor River, where he and other villagers fish and fetch water. After going there himself, there were dead fish everywhere on the waterfront. There was also the corpse of a hunting dog that had eaten some of the dead fish.
Stunned by what he had seen, Pabai called local journalists and told them the news. Within no time, pictures of the dead animals began making rounds on social media.
The story of the apparent pollution has since drawn the attention of people of all walks of life, with authorities warning the villagers not to use rivers in the region. But it also brought hardship to already poor villagers, who live on hand-to-mouth fishing and use the rivers for drinking, washing and cooking. (Jikando is a Vai phrase for “up the river.”)
“We cannot do anything with the river here. [The Environmental Protection Agency] has stopped us from touching and crossing the river. They even stopped us from drinking from the only hand pump here,” says Mustapha Pabai, town chief of Jikando. “As we speak, there is no fishing activity here. People are not cooking or washing with the river.”
Locals blame the pollution on a Bea Mountain Mining Company waste facility. The company has the facility right outside its New Liberty Gold Mine and has a connection to the Weaju River which forms a common boundary with the Varwor River in Jikando. It then empties into the Mafa River in Gormah, from where Pabai received that call about the pollution.
“I blame Bea Mountain for what happened because they are the only company close to us,” says Jeema Pabai, the wife of the town chief and leader of the women of Jikando.
“Our whole life has been carried backward because of this thing,” says James Kamara, an elder.
Bea Mountain denies any wrongdoing, saying in a statement a day after news of the pollution broke out, “that no abnormal conditions have taken place in its plant.
“There is also no discharge from the plant. All protocols in keeping with EPA guidelines and best practice are intact.” The statement added that the company was investigating the incident. The company has been distributing water in affected villages.
If the suspicion of villagers proves true, it would be the second time Bea Mountain operations would have led to pollution in that region. In this same month in 2016, spillage from the company’s waste facility polluted water sources in the area. The company at the time claimed at the time the incident did not affect people but villagers said it caused them rashes.
Also, in February last year, over 10,000 villagers in that region, including Jikando, filed a complaint against German and French banks DEG and Proparco, respectively, for their involvement in the New Liberty Gold Mine. The aggrieved villagers accuse the company of several things, including land-grab and water pollution. The outcome of this case is pending.
EPA said in a statement last week it was investigating the “gravity of the pollution.” Pictures posted to the agency’s Facebook page showed its investigators inspecting the company’s waste plant, collecting water samples and photographing dead fish.
Bea Mountain risks a USD$50,000 fine or imprisonment of at most 20 years as required by the Environmental Protection and Management Law of Liberia. Pabai said he had to convince around a dozen villagers not to leave the town, asking them to wait for the findings of the EPA’s investigation.