Concession agreements are perceived by government and citizens as the source of employment and rapid economic growth. But in the minds of policy makers and affected communities, negative impacts such as land degradation, deforestation, water sources pollution, high prevalence of Sexually Transmission Diseases (STIs) including HIV/AIDS, high level of prostitution, deterioration of physical and psychological health, increased or more severe respiratory diseases etc. associated with mining activities are involuntarily least of their concerns or priorities at the point of awarding contract and even during the projects’ lifespan.
In 2005, Arcelor Mittal Liberia signed Mineral Development Agreement (MDA) to begin iron ore mining in Buchanan and Yekepa concessions. The MDA was amended in 2006 after the first African female president-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected into office.
Under the MDA, the company (AML) is expected to contribute $ 3 million to Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa counties social development fund annually. The company is also required to establish and maintain medical and education facilities in all areas of operation, to serve employees, their families and the broader community, and to prioritize the employment and development of local Liberians.
With the mine’s lifespan at 25 years, 75 million is expected to drive community development projects which is aimed at uplifting and improving the lives of the affected people/communities. All these agreements signed under the MDA have fallen short over the years.
Sporadically, concessions especially in Nimba County had experienced series of demonstrations due to what citizens perceived as inconsistency in operationalizing the amended Mineral Development Agreement of 2006. Even-though ArcelorMittal has slowed down operations in country due to drop in iron ore price globally, for the past two budget years, social cooperate responsibilities assigned AML have not been forthcoming (a Nimba County Lawmaker lamented) with some student groups describing the failure on the part of the steel giant to fulfil its responsibilities as “deliberate” (President of the Yarwin Mehnssonoh Student Association (YARMUSA), Randolph Glee told The informer News, 2013).
In the midst of many lapses in executing its (AML) Cooperate Social responsibilities under the MDA comes contamination of water sources with heavy metals (Lead, Arsenic, and Mercury) in communities within concession areas.
A cross-sectional study conducted between July and September 2014, during which water samples (1 bottle from each community) were collected from communities within the concession area and were analysed for heavy metals at the Nuclear Chemistry and Environmental Research Centre, Ghana Atomic Energy Commission in Accra for heavy metals revealed that communities/towns highly affected are Gbapa with Arsenic level of 0.08mg/l and Mercury level of 0.04mg/l; Yekepa with Arsenic level of 0.016mg/l and Zolowee with Arsenic and Mercury levels at 0.0805mg/l and 0.04mg/l respectively in surface waters. For ground waters, Liabala reported Lead level of 0.064mg/l, Zolowee Arsenic level of 0.0065mg/l and Mercury level of 0.0285mg/l respectively.
Comparing/matching these results gathered from the mining concession with W.H.O permissible levels of 0.001mg/l for Arsenic and Mercury and 0.01mg/l for lead showed that those water sources are highly polluted with three (3) heavy metals (Lead, Mercury and Arsenic).
Notably, the above WHO permissible level of chemicals detected during rainy season when the water table was high, shows how toxic/concentrated it will be for human use/consumption during dry season when the water table will be very low.
Numbers displayed above have lesser meaning to people/readers if consequences of it long time human exposure/usage is not exposed. Therefore, below are adverse effects associated with the three heavy metals that were detected at higher level during the research.
Impacts of Lead, Mercury and Arsenic on human/public health
Lead in water
Long time exposure to lead can cause cancer, damage nervous system in children, brain disorders, autoimmunity (the immune system attacking itself), kidneys problems, miscarriages, reduced fertility in men and the circulatory system (Momodu and Anyakora 2010 and Ofosu-Asiedu et al., 2013).
Mercury in water
Mental disturbance, speech impairment, hearing loss and difficulties in movements are health problems that may arise from mercury toxicity (Momodu and Anyakora,2010). In addition, tremor, irritability, learning disabilities, reduced cognitive functions, immune suppression, nervousness, memory loss, excessive shyness, lack of sleep, muscle weakness, headaches, and hallucinations (false visions) are other health effects associated with mecury ingestion (WHO,2003, ATSDR,2014; Park and Zheng,2012; Ray et al.,2014; Homes et al., 2009).
Arsenic in water
Arsenic is the main source for so many public health problems in some parts of the world. Its consumption in water is related to the development of cancer at several areas of the body (skin, bladder, and lungs), developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes (WHO, 2011, FAO/WHO, 2011a; FAO/WHO, 2011b). Furthermore, arsenic had been considered one of the most common heavy metals that pose health threat to human lives.
Now that human exposure to heavy metals identified in Yekepa mining concession have been known as major sources for chronic illnesses as well as social conditions/problems that individuals suffered/ are suffering from, health of the public is compromised or at higher risk.
Especially for permanent residents who depend on surface and ground water sources for living (bathing, cooking, washing, fishing etc.).
During the research period, as I walked on the streets of Yekepa, I saw young and elderly people bathing, washing clothes and fetching water for homes from the re-developed stream that originated from the old mines.
The colour of the water is brown and at some point red-showing snapshot/face pollution in the sights of passer-by without chemical analysis.
Moreover, I saw AML staff bathing, washing and cooking with mineral water bottles (Aqua life) and even I did use it as well for those purposes.
Sadly, ordinary residents (not employees) have no different safe water sources they were drinking from at the point the research was conducted besides those very water sources that were sampled for testing and even till date.
Possible issues of public health concern raised from polluted water detected are:
1) is AML aware of the poor quality of water within the concession areas that is why staffs are given mineral water?
If yes, what have been their social cooperate responsibilities in making sure that ordinary citizens or residents are prevented from such grievous public health risk?
2). what have been the roles of the public health department of AML, if there is any in protecting the general public from such disaster?
3). How stringent are the Environmental Protection Agency and Land and Mines public protection laws as they relate to Yekepa concession?
4). Has the annual research to be conducted in the concession areas as inscribed in the MDA been relaxed by the Ministry of Land and Mines?
5). Have the county authorities cared to find out why employees of this company were given mineral water to sustain them daily?
6). Is it that the company is incapacitated to build or hire similar water producing company that will benefit the larger community while boosting public’s health?
7). Or the very poor research culture in Liberia was taken as an advantage?
There are lot more unanswered questions about why things happened that way. But the public health dangers of our citizens continue to be our greatest concerns as public health specialist.
Especially, when research results and recommendations were shared with company and authorities responsible for public health protection but landed on deaf ears (3 years now).
Based on the results from the study, inhabitants are prone to suffer from health conditions that are associated with heavy metals identified during the research unconsciously due to ignorance, weak regulation on the part of public protection agencies, withholding of research results that might have been conducted before AML begun operations from the general public.
The saddest part is that communities who depend on these water sources for living are unwillingly contracting diseases that are less likely reversible with suffering and death being the final destinations for affected people.
Youths who get exposed to those heavy metals overtime lives’ expectancies are most likely going to be shortened or will suffer irreversible disabilities that may undermine their social lives as well.
Let me clearly state here that due to the nature of the study and history of previous mining in the Yekepa concession, it cannot be certain that AML is wholly responsible for water pollution detected within concession areas operated by them till date. On the other hand, AML and other protection agencies cannot be fully extracted from whatsoever current/future public health ailments suffered by citizens within the concession areas.
To prevent further public health damages, I recommend that: the county authorities especially, representative of the district make the provision of safe drinking water a priority by using some of the social development fund while lobbying with AML for more funds that will adequately provide pipe-borne water throughout the concession areas; ArcelorMittal must conduct a detail study on the impacts of their operation in all the communities within the concession on both surface and underground water sources quality including tubers, vegetable, soil, fish etc. since those chemicals are preferably hosted by those food stuffs.
In addition, the Company should also prepare an action plan to track the possibility of ingesting heavy metals by affected communities, monitor and evaluate the results over a period. On the part of the County Health Team (CHT) representing the Ministry of Health, its main focus must be driven towards preventions rather than curative since diseases or conditions caused by those metals accumulate over time.
Finally, Government through the Environmental Protection Agencies and Lands and Mines must decentralize their activities targeting concession areas rather than deploying few and often inexperienced and/or people who are less knowledgeable of the health implications associated with chemicals normally used in minerals extraction around country.
On top of all, those individuals must be people who cannot be manipulated by cash or kinds against the public’s health and what it means for it to be compromised.
Eddie Miaway Farngalo BSN, RN, MPH,