Human Rights Watch recommends gov’t to suspend Midroc’s license
The largest gold mining company in Ethiopia, MIDROC Gold Mine PlC, refutes a report claiming that its Legadembi, Oromia, mine is causing environmental and human damages.
A report alleging environmental and human damages at the Legadembi gold mine operated by Midroc Gold Mine has resurfaced this week. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has issued a new report requesting that the Ethiopian government suspend the license of the country’s sole gold mining company operating on an industrial scale.
The average mercury concentration in the water at Legadembi is approximately 37 times higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standard for drinking water, according to HRW’s report. Cyanide, a key gold-processing chemical, was detected in “considerable amounts” in water and soil samples outside of the tailings dam.
MIDROC called the report baseless.
“We have seen the [HRW] report. The report is completely baseless. The information in the report is outdated,” Seid Mohammed, senior communication officer at Midroc, told The Reporter.
The downstream water from the mine contained arsenic concentrations nearly 10 times higher than the WHO’s standards for safe drinking water, according to the report, which also stated the presence of chromium and nickel.
As an outcome of these chemicals, “skin diseases, miscarriages, stillbirths, and congenital disabilities were significantly higher near the mine than other parts of the country. The report states that some community members became ill after drinking water from nearby creeks.
Residents who live adjacent to or downstream from the tailings ponds have reported miscarriages, stillbirths, and congenital disabilities (birth defects).
“Human Rights Watch has obtained photographs of 12 children with physical disabilities. Residents said some animals died after consuming this water, and animals that regularly graze there seemed to have more frequent congenital disabilities,” stated the report.
HRW recommended that the Ethiopian government suspend Midroc’s Legadembi mining license and ensure that no operations take place until a tailings management system has been designed in accordance with professional standards and harmful chemicals in the water and soil do not exceed international health protection standards.
The report implicates the Ethiopian government, the Oromia regional government, Midroc Investment Group, and Argor-Heraeus, the German technology company that purchases gold from Midroc.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the trade association for major gold refineries that certified Argor-Heraeus for compliance with responsible mining practices, is also requested to review its Responsible Gold Guidance. The report also implicates the Canadian government, which reportedly collaborated on the government-led assessment.
Officials from the government and Midroc The Reporter talked to refuted the report.
“They [HRW] have no information at all. They do not know how the project was suspended before and how it resumed operation again. We never disclosed the information,” Tesfaye Megersa, director general of the Oromia Mineral Development Authority, told The Reporter. “They have contacted me. But I cannot respond to them because the license is given at the federal level.”
In 2021, the government restored Midroc’s license, which had been suspended in 2018 due to public protests. HRW produced a similar report at the same time.
The government formerly owned Legedembi, which started operations in the 1980s. As the government privatized it, however, Midroc Gold secured a lease for 20 years for USD 172 million in 1997. Until 2018, it was the only large-scale gold mining project in Ethiopia, producing an average of 4,000 kilograms of gold yearly.
Tesfaye confirmed that the government conducted a comprehensive environmental study prior to restoring the license in 2021.
“We have studied the issue to the extreme. Research has been conducted on the community in the surrounding area. Genetic samples were taken from the people and sent abroad for analysis. It is analyzed based on the type of chemical used, when it was used, and when the people were affected,” Tesfaye explained.
The Director General stated that the impact seen on some people in the area could be an outcome of the chemicals used a long time ago. He stresses that there is no chemical abuse under their regulation of Legedembi.
“Legedembi was a government investment before it was privatized and given to Midroc. Mercury’s impact is generational and does not happen all at once. It has been 20 years since the license was given to Midroc. But since they took the license, Midroc has been using cyanide, never mercury,” Tesfaye says.
Cyanide, he says, is the most environmentally and human-friendly chemical. “Cyanide has been approved, and the impact analysis is comprehensive,” Tesfaye said, refraining from disclosing the full findings of the study.
The HRW report aligns with Tesfaye’s findings.
“When Midroc took over the lease of Legadembi in 1997, it introduced a cyanide-leaching system to extract gold. Prior to 1997, a state-owned mining company had used mercury, another toxic chemical, for gold processing,” states the report.
Tesfaye, however, questions whether the issue is a matter for the government or the company.
MIDROC says it will soon brief the public about the analysis it has conducted.
“We have been working on a detailed analysis of the environmental concerns and will disclose the report soon,” Seid said.