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GUYANA SUFFERS CYANIDE DISASTER

In what officials called Guyana's worst environmental disaster, residents collected rainwater and authorities distributed bottled water to ward off a potentially deadly cyanide spill.

Schools of dead fish and hogs were found floating down Guyana's biggest river Tuesday, victims of a cyanide waste spill that continued to escape from a gold mine operated by U.S. and Canadian firms.More than 325 million gallons of cyanide waste has spilled into the Essequibo River since Saturday. The spill from Omai Gold Mines Ltd. had traveled 50 miles downstream by Tuesday.

Yelling through bullhorns from boats, trucks and low-flying helicopters, health officials plied the river banks to warn some 18,000 Indians, loggers and miners not to touch the water.

The Health Ministry banned people from catching and eating fish, shrimp and other river life and told farmers not to let their animals drink from the river. Officials began distributing bottled water, but most residents collected rainwater.

"Luckily for us, the rain has been falling every day," said Mike Ross, police inspector for Bartica, a riverside city of 16,000 residents.

Prime Minister Samuel Hinds called the spill Guyana's worst environmental disaster.

President Cheddi Jagan declared the area around the spill an "environmental disaster area."

Jagan did not detail the boundaries of the disaster area or the action the status comprises but said Parliament would meet Thursday to discuss the crisis.

The spill occurred when the retaining wall of a holding pond broke, initially dumping 15.7 million gallons an hour of cyanide-tainted water into the Omai River, which feeds the larger Essequibo.

Miners on Tuesday reported seeing a herd of dead wild hogs and schools of fish floating down the river, eight miles downstream from Omai.

Omai Gold Mines said it had reduced the rate of spillage by diverting some of the water into the pit of the mine, the second-largest open-pit mine in South America.

The concentration of cyanide in the spilling water was diluted from 15 parts per million Sunday to around 3 parts per million, the company said. Cyanide can be fatal in concentrations above 2 parts per million. Lower doses ingested over a period of time can cause mental retardation.