The closure of over 40 gold mining and processing plants in Migori County in the past three weeks has unmasked the powerful tycoons behind the lucrative enterprise that is also responsible for the suffering of thousands of workers who have for years been exploited by the owners for years.
Determined to reverse the trend, a government-appointed task force headed by the Migori County Commissioner Joseph Rotich has been conducting an operation to crack down on plants that have been flouting mining rules.
The team comprises officers from the Mining ministry, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), National Environment Management Authority (Nema), Immigration, security agencies, Labour ministry, the National Land Commission and the Interior ministry.
On Thursday, Mining Cabinet Secretary John Munyes held a meeting with members of the agency team as well as Migori Governor Okoth Obado, whose two gold processing plants were found to be operating illegally and shut down.
"If we don't move with speed to regulate the industry, we will have ourselves to blame," warned Mr Munyes.
The crackdown comes in the wake of the death of one miner on Thursday evening after a mine caved in at Kopudho gold mine in Rongo Sub-County, Migori, exposing the dangerous conditions the labourers work under.
The dead man was among 11 people who were toiling in the mines during the 8pm tragedy.
One survivor, Maurice Obwar, 41, told the Nation that the walls of the mine collapsed, burying them underneath.
"I have been in the mines for two decades now, but yesterday's incident was a shocker. The debris kept falling on us," Mr Obwar said.
He added: "We were staring at death and we kept screaming, luckily those who were outside came to our rescue. One of us was badly hit," said the survivor.
The victims who had been buried in the debris were rushed to Lwala Community Hospital for first aid and treatment and one who was severely injured was referred to Kisii Teaching and Referral Hospital (KTRH) where he died while receiving medical attention.
Mr Julius Omondi, a doctor at the hospital, confirmed receiving the patients.
"We received three patients who had been rescued from Kopuodho mine at around 9pm. I had referred the deceased to KTRH upon noticing that he had severe head and chest injuries," said Mr Omondi.
According to the clinician, the other two had soft tissue injuries and were discharged on Friday morning.
Mr Obwar called on the government through the mining department to ensure safety measures for those venturing in the business.
"The government should ensure that miners are safe while conducting their business. We need protective clothing and machines to help us avert future hazards," he said.
Investigations by the Nation established that the mines are owned by powerful and well connected individuals, including Mr Obado and top officials at the Migori County government.
Others include a former Kenyan ambassador, several Chinese investors and prominent businessmen in the county.
The tycoons, we established, mint a minimum of Sh2 million from a kilogram of gold while the poor labourers take home only a few hundred shillings daily for their sweat.
Among the owners of the plants include Migori county secretary and close Obado ally, Mr Christopher Rusana, whose sites are among those which have been served with closure notices.
Dr Magita Machage, who was until 2010 the Ambassador of Kenya to Russia, has also had his sites shut down. He is the twin brother of former Migori senator Dr Wilfred Machage.
Margaret Omondi of Peggy Enterprises is another affected proprietor. She is said to be a close relative of a vocal ODM senator in the country.
Three Chinese investors also own several mines which have since been closed down for contravening the Mining Act.
Others include Mr Tom Were who also enjoys close ties with the Migori County government leadership.
Mr Daniel Marwa and Daniel Moi from Kuria are other top players in the gold industry in Migori Mounty.
Mr Munyes was on Thursday holed up in an hour-long meeting with Mr Obado at the county commissioner's office in what sources revealed was an attempt to have the CS intervene and allow entrepreneurs resume their business.
"The plants that were served with closure notices remain closed until they adhere to the set guidelines and are cleared by the multi-agency team," said the CS in an exclusive interview with Nation.
He added: "The governor has taken us through the support the county government is giving to the small scale miners, but as a ministry, all we want is to ensure sanity."
He said there are so many mushrooming artisanal miners in the county which needed to be regulated.
"We also challenge the county government to help in this area," said the CS.
But the county government, through the Director of Trade, Tourism and Co-operatives Mr Daudi Okoth Obado, said they were shocked with the government's crackdown on the gold plants.
"The closure of the mines has an enormous ripple effect on our economy. Most major towns and businesses in our county thrive on the proceeds from the gold industry. Their closure only means a rise in insecurity and crime," said Mr Okoth, who is a brother of the governor.
He further noted that the closure of the mines would not necessarily help in regulating the industry.
He instead called for the sensitisation of the community on what is expected of them.
But investigations by the Nation team showed that some of the closed plants continue to operate secretly.
Out of the more than 60 gold leaching and six elution (washing) firms spread across Nyatike, Rongo, Awendo, Kuria West and Suna West, only one per cent has adhered to the set guidelines, according to authorities.
The multi-agency team established that most plants do not have safe disposal of used materials, especially hazardous waste. They also lack proper labelling and storage of toxic chemicals.
"You can see most use cyanide to process their gold. Cyanide is a toxic chemical. It is illegally imported from the neighbouring Tanzania," said Mr Rotich.
Many also discard the pollutants into water bodies and the environment.
River Kuja and River Migori which discharge into Lake Victoria are the most affected. There have been various incidents of livestock dying after consuming polluted water.
Health experts have warned that people living in areas surrounding the mines are slowly being affected and the effects of the pollutants may start manifesting themselves in the coming days.
Also, health and safety standards of miners have not been adhered to. Dozens of miners have been buried alive in mines.
According to the ministry of Petroleum and Mining, most dealers lack mineral dealers processing licenses, mineral dealers trading licenses, reconnaissance licenses, prospecting licenses, retention licenses, mining licenses, reconnaissance permits, prospecting permits, mining permits and artisanal mining permits.
The Ministry of Labour, on the other hand, accuses the plant owners of failing to ensure that no child is employed in the mines.
The mine owners have also failed to adhere to occupational safety and health issues and that wages of labourers are regulated as per the 2018 order that amended Labour Institutions No. 12 of 2007 Act.
There are no clear foreign contracts of service for expatriates in mining operations and statutory remittances by employers.
"We have many foreigners here from Tanzania. The fact that they are in the country illegally and operate without work permits is a threat to our security," said county police commander Joseph Nthenge.
The KRA also accused the mine owners of lacking valid companies or businesses with a list of directors, personal or business number commonly known as PIN and tax compliance certificate.
"Almost all of them have failed to meet the KRA guidelines," said authorities.
Additional reporting by Josiah Odanga Odanga