Shoals of dead fish and hogs floated down Guyana’s biggest river Tuesday, victims of a cyanide waste spill that continued to escape from a gold mine operated by U.S. and Canadian firms.
More than 325 million gallons of cyanide waste had spilled into the Essequibo River near Omai since Saturday night, turning central Guyana’s biggest source of water into a potentially deadly flow. The spill had traveled 50 miles downstream by Tuesday.
Yelling through bullhorns from boats, trucks and low-flying helicopters, health officials plied the river banks to warn some 18,000 Indians, loggers and miners not to touch the water.
The Health Ministry banned people from catching and eating fish, shrimp and other marine life and told farmers not to let their animals drink from the river. Officials began distributing bottled water, but most residents collected rainwater.
“Luckily for us, the rain has been falling every day,” said Mike Ross, police inspector for Bartica, a riverside city of 16,000.
Montreal-based Cambior Ltd., the mine’s majority owner, said in a statement that the leak would be stopped within two days.
President Cheddi Jagan, in a nationally televised statement Tuesday evening, declared the area around the spill an environmental disaster area. He said Parliament would meet Thursday on the crisis.
The spill occurred when the retaining wall of a holding pond broke, initially dumping 15.7 million gallons an hour of cyanide-tainted water into the Omai River, which feeds the larger Essequibo. The pond holds 860 million gallons.
Miners saw a herd of dead wild hogs and schools of fish floating down the river, said Stanislaus Jardine, president of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association.
Omai Gold Mines is 95 percent owned by Cambior Ltd. of Canada and Golden Star Resources of Denver, and 5 percent owned by Guyana.