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News: Human Rights Watch says companies “took no action” over gold mine pollution in Guji, urges gov’t to halt resumed mine operations

A 16-year-old boy collects water from a spring near Lega Dembi gold mine in the Oromia region of Ethiopia.

Addis Abeba – Human Rights Watch said that Midroc Investment Group, a firm operating a gold mine in Ethiopia, and Argor-Heraeus, a Swiss refinery, from which its gold was sourced, allegedly ignored media reports about pollution from the mine in Lega Dembi, Oromia, for years, and urged the Ethiopian government to immediately halt operations until effective pollution reduction measures have been put in place. 

According to a statement released today, Human Rights Watch said Midroc Investment Group and Argor-Heraeus should provide compensation and health care to affected residents and clean up the devastating pollution in the area.

An assessment commissioned by the Ethiopian government and initiated in 2018 by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute revealed that local residents in the mining area suffered serious health consequences, said report. The study concluded that “communities living in the mining area were at risk of exposure to pollutants like toxic metals released from the mining plant and other mining activities.” 

Human Rights Watch said the results of the assessment process have never been made public.

Midroc resumed operations with a license from the government without any apparent steps to reduce pollution, even though the government had said it was suspending its license until pollution issues were resolved.

The Ethiopian government suspended the Lega Dembi industrial gold mine’s license in May 2018 following protests over pollution and its health impacts. Scientific studies initiated in 2018 found that residents were exposed to toxic metals, violating their rights to health and to a clean, healthy, and safe environment.

Environmental testing by Addis Ababa University in 2018 found high levels of arsenic in water samples taken downstream from the mine area, and high levels of nickel, chromium, and arsenic in soil samples outside the mine.

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By then, the government had said it would not permit the company to resume the mine’s operations until the issues were “resolved” and the toxic waste “no longer poses a threat”, according to the report. However, Human Rights Watch research revealed that the mine recommenced operations around March 2021 without apparent steps to reduce pollution.

“The Ethiopian government, by allowing the Lega Dembi mine to reopen without pollution reduction steps in place, is violating the right to health of children and adults living nearby,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate child rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should suspend operations until measures have been taken to ensure that harmful chemicals in the water and soil do not exceed international standards and that people harmed by the pollution obtain compensation and care.”

The report indicated that residents living near the mine area, located close to the town of Shakiso in Guji Zone, Oromia region, have for years complained of ill health and disabilities, particularly in newborn children.

A 6-year-old boy, born near Lega Dembi gold mine in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, has no bones in his right foot and three toes on his left foot.

Human Rights Watch highlighted that Midroc, with support from Argor-Heraeus, should provide comprehensive, inclusive, and transparent environmental remediation.

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Midroc Investment Group, one of Ethiopia’s largest private business entities, took over the mine from the Ethiopian government in 1997. 

Human Rights Watch has conducted research into the human rights situation at the Lega Dembi mine in Ethiopia since 2012 and interviewed 26 people living in the vicinity until 2019. AS

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