‘Gross Environmental Negligence’ in Gbanepea

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Illicit artisanal mining ongoing in many parts of rural Liberia

Scientists concerned about occupational safety and health, policy directives control in mining, artisanal mining sector 

By Alfred Wreh and Borwen L. Sayon

On February 14, 2019 Liberia heard of a fatal mining accident in Gbanepea Gold Mine in Gbanepea Town, Near Tappita City, Nimba County where a shaft compartment collapsed and trapped over forty persons. Over forty miners were buried in the rubble underground in what eyewitness describe as a landslide.

The government in solidarity with the families of victims in the tragedy declared a national day of mourning, postponed cabinet meeting and though the environmental scientists welcome the idea, they have described the situation an “emergency and gross case of environmental negligence”.

Alfred Wreh, a natural resources researcher and circular economist claims his analyses of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), policy directives control in mining, artisanal mining sector demonstrated “widespread and consistent failure” to protect land cover, prevent disaster and improve water quality. ‘I know first-hand this is gross negligence, non-compliance and a major concern of OSH in the artisanal mining sector. It is appalling the way the people across the mining communities are treated.’

Borwen L. Sayon, another NRM professional noted, I have visited the mines and seen mining agents only standing by to collect taxes, fees and bribes for licensure. These agents who are not performing their duties get rich and do nothing in relations to mine safety, hazard prevention, pollution control, environmental degradation, restoration and even drugs addiction.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy oversees the mining sector. In 2017 an artisanal mining policy was developed and approved to regulate the performance of Class C mining operation. One of the primary reasons for the policy development is to prevent hazards through effective implementation of the regulations especially on mine safety. The mining agent (s) on duty and the Environmental Protection Agency inspectorate has the oversight to ensure compliance. But every year we are confronted with situation of either disaster, pollution, and overall, cascading effects of forest and land degradation with zero plans for reclamation through restoration activities Mr. Sayon said.

What happened in Gbanepea is not something new in the mining industry, but rather a continuation of mining tragedies like the one happened in No Way Camp, Marloi Township, in Central Glaakon Statutory District No. 2, Grand Bassa County January 2015, No Way Camp Grand Cape Mount October 2013 and the explosion which occurred at a rubber processing plant owned by the Liberian Agricultural Company (LAC) based in District #3, Grand Bassa County, trapping miners and injuring 17 in the case of the explosion among others.

Mr. Wreh and Sayon both agree that the current mining license program should cease “immediately”, including the granting of additional class C licenses, until a comprehensive, independent review of recent operations including health and safety is completed and a national Occupational Safety and Health measures are instituted. In May 2018, the President of Liberia suspended the mining licensure in a bid to safeguard Liberia’s natural resources and due to financial irregularities. The suspension by the Liberian leader mandated a thorough review of the safeguards, unfortunately the public has yet to be informed about the outcomes of the review, and or, which policies has been amended for implementation.

According to the scientists, mining is one of the riskiest occupations, and they wonder why were precautionary steps not taken? Mr. Wreh and Sayon said authorities at the Ministries of Mines, Labour, and the EPA and mine owners must be held accountable for this gross negligence. The ministry of labour is responsible for labour standards on OSH reporting requirements and wonder why there is no coordination between these statutory bodies?

Ask them for their books, a record for hazards and mine safety and health administration. Since the start of current operations back in 2005, virtually none exist, and the ministry new leadership has yet to release any mining hazards report nor do we have any database. The hazards database is a compilation of potential hazards in the sector, the mechanisms driving those hazards, their risk factor including sources, health effects and controls needed for those mechanisms and legislative requirements. Mining is responsible for about eight percent of fatal accidents at work, we cannot continue to disregard the environment and potential threats to citizens Mr. Wreh intoned.

The young environmental researcher said the fatality at Gbanepea is not only an environmental crime; it is a crime against humanity due to negligence. The lack of environmental protection and surveillance plus the negligence of mining companies are to be blamed.

David Zubah, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspector in Nimba County, said the Gbanepea Gold Mine is an “environmental death trap,” and therefore, the government should order its immediate closure, this was shortly after he arrived at the gold mine on Wednesday, February 13 after the miners had died in the landslide.

The action of the EPA inspector and the silence of the Director for Mines after the tragedy is an act of total disregard for the rights and safety of the people and the law of the land; it seems to suggest that the rights of the people are dispensable, while investment is indispensable and next the entire land gets altered and next is a horrible calamity and loss. People are now mourning because of the negligence of mining companies and our regulators, which shouldn’t be the case. These actions and inactions by the regulators are serious example of maladministration in public administration regarding environmental protection and sustainable development. The inactions of these regulatory institutions led to yet another emblematic environmental disaster of our time, one that continues and one that could easily happen again.

Under the environmental protection and management law, environmental management is a vital component of mining and all mining claim holder are obliged to prepare detailed environmental impact assessments, indicating how they will mitigate environmental problems such as air, disaster, biodiversity and water pollution. Claim holders failing to meet these statutory requirements must face prosecution, fines or the withdrawal of their operating licenses.

The flagrant violations are the result of government ministries and agencies simply shifting the rectification tasks after incidents and then leaving them alone without providing solutions.

Borwen Sayon writes that, Liberia is experiencing a rapid expansion of exploration and extractive activities of natural resources including oil, timber, iron ore, gold, and diamond. After Nimba disaster, the best thing we can do is to prevent further disaster by becoming resilient is the implementation of the ILO’s Safety and Health in Mines Convention; we have been a member since June 28, 1919; regular Environmental, Occupational Health and Safety Audits, and periodic mines inspection and environment and social impact assessments. All of these are in conformity with the Environment Protection and Management Law of Liberia.

Since 1919, the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has received only three consistent reports from Liberia, 1931, 1962 and 2003. As such we are concern that under the terms of ratification, Liberia is not meeting her obligations under the Safety and Health in Mines Convention. What this means is our lack of environmental and social due diligence leads to legal penalties provided the families of victims decide to act under our regulatory frameworks or the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, Mr. Wreh said this is a failure of Supply and Demand of Environmental Protection and Quality, Climate and the Ethics of our Environmental Policy.

“We have got the abundance of natural resources, if you are going to exploit it for growth and development, why not pay attention to the environment and occupational safety concerns?”. The real solutions are being ignored, especially by those representing the government in the sector. These are working on sustainable development by tackling climate change, environmental degradation and the obvious one, managing water quality better and improving safety.  Mr Wreh said.

We are deeply concerned at the way our people are violating the environmental laws. Our laws are one of the best across the region, but implementation is the biggest problem,” said Mr. Wreh

Every time an accident happens it is a question of people being negligent, or the machines being manned by unqualified people, or they are not aware of pollution. Companies must comply with the law and government must enforce the law to the letter as a deterrent to other would-be offenders.

The government must see the importance of improving endeavours to ensure mining disasters preparedness. We call on them to see this as an imperative beyond just the declaration of mourning, sealing off mine sites, cancelling cabinet meetings, but to engage many partners in constructive dialogue to promote consensus building and enforcement of our mining regulatory and environmental frameworks.

We would like to share the following recommendations on how to prevent repeated accidents.

  • Health Safety and Environment (HSE) Compliance: The Environment Protection and Management Law require all operators to submit for review and approval a plan; periodic talk about safety, conduct safety audits, awareness, straight compliance and encourages suggestions from employees for improving safety. Make this a top priority.
  • Introduce range of OHS courses and licensure: To ensure Liberia has the human capacity to implement OHS, we recommend authorities of the TVET program and higher institutions of learning integrate courses and award licenses in collaboration with EPA to promote health and safety foundations. Acquiring OHS through higher education incorporates broad principals including ethics and integrity, legal aspects, and psychological hazards in the occupational environment.
  • Review of Mine Disaster Prevention and Control Directive: Authorities can liaise with partners to by funding Research that place more focus on areas such as communications, self-rescue, and emergency response. Introduce effective engineering controls to prevent, detect, and mitigate mine disasters.
  • Introduce effective engineering controls to prevent, detect, and mitigate mine disasters.
  • Assist mining communities to improve mine escape, rescue, and emergency response capabilities through realistic training exercises and implementation of new or improved training programs.
  • Periodic joint interagency environmental and safety audits
  • Ensure all work places develop Work Health and Safety Hazard Identification and Risk Management procedures, develop a national Hazards database and implementation of the Mine Safety Convention
  • Regulatory agencies must be trained, and companies must train their staff. Safety on the job depends skills, knowledge, awareness, and judgment. Training a vital part of education and awareness strengthens and develops all these safety essentials.
  • Government must emphasize hazard detection and reporting. Keep alert and investigate every incident. Whether it was a near miss or an accident that caused injuries and damage, investigate until the hazard has been corrected.

Safety attitude is vital for safe workplace. But it will not happen overnight. This means, repeatedly reinforcing regulations, act on close calls and hold people accountable, implement procedures and adhere to environmental and OHS legislation.

About the Authors
Alfred Wreh is an Environmental Sustainability Researcher, a Scholar, Circular Economist, Environmentalist, Conservationist, Natural Resources Practitioner and a Concern Citizen with qualification in “Disasters and Ecosystems: Resilience in a Changing Climate; understanding the link between Environment, Disasters and Disaster Risk Reduction” from TH Köln University of Applied Sciences. He is a member of several International Environmental groups including the International Society for Industrial Ecology.

Borwen L. Sayon is a Conservation, Environment, and Natural Resource Management Practitioner with over ten years’ experience in Liberia. He has held senior management positions with Government of Liberia and international non-governmental organizations. He has also coordinated the development of Liberia’s National Strategy on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) funded by the World Bank. He holds academic awards from the University of Calfornia, Berkeley, Cuttington University and is a candidate for Masters in Environmental Leadership at Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University

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