11 April 2017

Liberia: Locals Demand Environmental Cleanup - China Union Plans Restart

Neplole Kollie Town, Margibi — "I expected good to come from China Union," says Oldman Sackie, an elder in this town, established in 1966, few hours' drive from Kakata, the main city in Margibi County."

"It was once host to German owned-Bong Mining Company and now plays host to China Union.

"Life was suitable for us when we worked for BMC. Development was here; and we had electricity 24/7.

"The school system was good for our children; we had a clinic."

"I am going to make sure China Union fixes every mess they created before they can commence any other operations.

"The President has mandated that before we go into any negotiation or renegotiation with any concession company, we should first go and find out the previous violations and make sure it is fixed."

But things have been very different since China Union started operations in 2010.

An angry Sackie now says the community has suffered environmental damage and has seen so little benefit in terms of jobs and social development he'd have preferred the company had not come here at all.

"We drink water from a well that is muddy, because China Union has polluted our creeks with their chemicals," says Oldman Sackie, born in 1946, 20 years before the mining began in the area."

"They have not installed any hand pump for us to have safe drinking water. We no longer grow rice or cassava because the chemical has also damaged the soil, so nothing grows here; people now have to go far away from the villages in order to make farms."

From the 1970s to the start of the civil war in 1989, life for inhabitants of Bong Mines was booming according to locals who remember the era.

The company not only provided jobs for people in its concession areas but also for jobseekers, who came from other places.

Locals hoped China Union would mean a return to those days. But by the time China Union stopped operations in 2015 after the Ebola crisis and a massive plunge in the global price of iron ore, many workers were left unpaid, social development was minimal and there was extensive environment damage that has endangered the lives of people here.

Now that iron ore prices have recovered China Union wants to restart operations here. Locals say that cannot happen until the company has made good on its previous commitments and there is a guarantee of better oversight by government agencies going forward.

China Union's 25-year Mineral Development Agreement with the Liberian government required the company to contribute US$3.5M to the counties of Bong, Montserrado and Margibi each year in a Social Development Fund that was to be spent on county infrastructure improvements including water and sanitation projects, clinics and schools.

The money was paid to the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, local legislators then lead a County Sitting Council that determined how that money was spent. Bong should have received more than US$8 million from China Union since 2010.

The MDA also spelled out how China Union should pay local workers. Front Page Africa will investigate these aspects of China Union's activities in future reporting.

Residents' biggest complaint here now is the environmental damage that has left them without safe drinking water and pollutants destroying their farms.

The MDA has extensive requirements for environmental planning to ensure damage to waterways and farmlands was limited and affected people were compensated when damage was unavoidable. Residents say none of that has happened.

Since the company pulled out, residents of affected towns and villages say the water pollution has increased, leaving the inhabitants with no choice but to continue drinking waters from polluted creeks.

During a tour with journalists to view the creeks, Town Chief Amos Kollie of Neploleh Kollie Town, pointed to brown-greenish creek waters.

Town Chief Kollie parted one of the creeks with his hands and dipped a cup full, and drank it, in an illustration of how residents are forced to drink the polluted waters.

"The creek water we drink, we also use it for fishing, washing and bathing," says Town Chief Kollie.

"But the company has polluted the water. Sometimes the water can run people stomach (diarrhea), but we are still drinking the water because we do not have any other choice."

In nearby Bloumue Town, Chief Sekou Sumbai says residents are also suffering from similar issues, drinking from a nearby creek that is in the same condition as that of Neploleh Kollie Town.

Sumbai says residents are surviving by the mercy of God, as chemicals from the company are spilled into creeks and soil.

Civil society actors say that full disclosure of the agreement was not made to affected communities before the company commenced operations.

According to Jackson Speare, Coordinator for the Secretariat of the CSO Consortium on Natural Resources, the first stage of the concession implementation process is to make sure that an environmental and social impact assessment is conducted long before the concession begins operations in any community, and that the community should be involved in that process.

"In the China Union case, this is exactly what we are seeing," says Mr. Speare.

"The government did not make full disclosure to the people. Had they done so, those concession areas' inhabitants would not have been complaining now about pollution. "

"They would have said 'If our water will be polluted during your operations, then we need an alternative source of drinking water,'" said Speare

"The environmental degradation in these towns and villages is so huge, you see the sewage pipes of the company, emptying into the various water bodies in these towns and villages located under the mines."

"During one of our assessments, we took pictures of the pollution and showed them to the lawmakers representing these people in the National Legislature. Unfortunately, nothing has been done by those lawmakers to help their own people. You cannot even sit outside in Sackie Town to eat without being invaded by flies."

According to Section 5.3 of the concession agreement between China Union and the government of Liberia, the company is required to carry out an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and produce an environmental management plan.

The government agency responsible for oversight, the National Bureau of Concessions, says that it inspected the operations of the company a few months after it began and before they pulled out, and found out that it was not operating in accordance with the agreement regarding pollution and environmental degradation.

"We issued several citations, warning the company of the pollution," says Ciatta Bishop, Director of the National Bureau of Concessions."

"This has been one of my biggest fights with the company. When the Inter-Ministerial Committee visited up there, we saw several violations.

The water is horrible, the company's violations in terms of EPA violations are gross and I cannot defend those issues."

"The Inter-Ministerial Committee did a follow-up in 2015 and we invited the EPA, but they did not show up.

China Union did not build a dam which was a problem, because you cannot be mining and washing and have free flow of the waste," Bishop added.

Locals say the Environmental Protection Agency has not sent inspectors to monitor for last four years the company operated.

When the EPA was reached by FrontPageAfrica, they promised to send inspectors to those affected communities before getting back with official comments.

The EPA is yet to come forth with a response.

Bishop showed FPA a letter she sent to China Union in 2014, just before the Ebola crisis, stressing that the environmental issues were paramount.

In the letter, she pointed out that the Bureau had issues with the water pollution, but also with the concession reporting requirements, a poorly built school, and other issues.

"We had these issues because the company had not provided us an environmental update, neither an ESIA update," says Bishop.

"When Ebola hit, the company's international staff left and then we started having serious environmental problems."

Now the price of iron ore has risen again China Union has asked to restart operations. Bishop vows to ensure China Union cleans up these problems first.

"I am going to make sure China Union fixes every mess they created before they can commence any other operations," she says.

"The President has mandated that before we go into any negotiation or renegotiation with any concession company, we should first go and find out the previous violations and make sure it is fixed."

China Union's Communications Officer Morris Tate asked journalists to request an interview through written communications.

However, after a written request was submitted, Tate informed journalists via mobile phone that the company was about to commence operations and would not speak until it recommenced operations.

Meanwhile, one lawmaker representing the counties affected by China Union says he is unaware of what is going on with the concession.

"This is the first time this is coming to my knowledge that people in my district around the China Union operations do not have safe drinking water," says Representative Ben Fofana of Margibi District #4. He said funds for the district had been held up in a dispute with the Superintendent.

"If the Superintendent Office had given the nearly US$800,000.00 given by the company for use by the county, we would have settled the poor drinking water problems."

"But we have been struggling over this money ever since the company started operations. The Superintendent's office has refused to turn the money over to my district office.

"We do not see what development is being done with the money, but if the money was given to my office, we would have built hand pumps and provided safe drinking water for the people."

"But since the Superintendent refused to turn the funds over, the citizens will continue to suffer," Representative Fofana further said.

Efforts to contact Superintendent John Buway for a chance to respond to Fofana's allegation were unsuccessful.

As to whether Ms Bishop remains in office by the time China Union recommences operations or not to enforce the Environmental law, citizen's sanitation problems still remain a health challenge for them and their children.

"No clinic is here, when we are sick, your people put you in a hammock and carried you for two hours to Bong Mines for treatment."

"Sometimes people can die on the way to the hospital," says Oldman Sackie.

"Therefore, I want to tell the government that since we are low class citizens, when they are making the laws, it should include us; they should not just sit in Monrovia and decide for us. "

"Because the only time our lawmakers and those running to be president come here, is to run their campaigns, and when they leave, we do not see them again. So, it means the government is selling us to those concessions."

This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives and the Thomson Reuters Foundation with funding from German Development Cooperation. The funder had no say in the story's content

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