WINDHOEK, Namibia (GIN)–Twelve drums of highly toxic calcium cyanide, plus loads of other chemicals, including nitric and sulphuric acid, were left behind when its owners abandoned the Namib Lead Mine about four years ago.
The drums pose a serious danger to the health of thousands of people in the vicinity. They were recently found in an abandoned mine in the Namib Desert outside Swakopmund.
It was only when a Swakopmund resident discovered the chemicals by chance nearly seven weeks ago that alarm was raised over this potential danger.
“It is a disaster waiting to happen,” the resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, said. “It is just as bad as leaving live ammunition lying around.”
With the holiday season upon residents, and knowing that people tend to explore the desert during holiday times, the resident started contacting everybody he could think of who could do something about it.
He said he immediately raised the alarm when he saw the calcium cyanide labels on the drums, as he had a terrible experience as a 10-year-old child with the poison. He saw a friend who accidentally inhaled cyanide die in front of him.
George Laubscher, director of Swachem Namibia at Walvis Bay, said one drum of the poison was enough to kill three-quarters of Swakopmund’s population, especially if it got into the drinking water. The substance can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, through the skin or by ingestion.
Mr. Laubscher, who visited the site with the chief mining inspector of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, has since put a new padlock on the iron gate to the room where the 12 drums are stored.
The first reaction from the Ministry of Mines and Energy was apparently to dig a hole to dump all the chemicals in.
Piet Liebenberg, chief mining inspector, said the owners of the Namib Lead Mine never notified the ministry of their intention to abandon the site and disappeared without doing any rehabilitation work. When the ministry cannot get hold of the owners, it is their obligation to make the mine site safe.
Mr. Liebenberg said he was the only mining inspector left in the country and that there was no time to do proper inspections.
Asked whether the potentially disastrous situation at the mine site should not take priority, he said he had contacted the Ongopolo Mine to ask if they could dispose of the cyanide. The mine has the only facility in the country to neutralize the poison.
Ongopolo is apparently willing to take it, if it is delivered to them. There are about 200 abandoned mine sites in the country that have not been rehabilitated.
According to an expert, it would cost about $5.7 million (U.S.) to completely rehabilitate the Namib Lead Mine, and about $1.8 million to transport and neutralize the 12 drums of calcium cyanide.