Time to Roll up our Sleeves and Tackle Toxic Mercury Use in Small-Scale Gold Mining

[Artisanal Miners in Medellin, Colombia/photo credit: Marcello Veiga]

The last decade has witnessed a boom in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) business. About 10 million people are directly engaged in ASGM, and about 100 million people rely on ASGM for their livelihood, including those involved in the secondary economy that provides goods and services to the sector. However, many of these artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations use mercury - about 1600 tons of it every year, making it the leading source of mercury pollution in the world. The MercuryWatch website, which tracks mercury use in ASGM, has data here. The use of this poison can cause devastating local effects on miners, their families, their communities and their local environment, but it also contributes substantially to the overall pool of global mercury pollution, which threatens fish stocks worldwide. In a process that is centuries old, miners mix mercury with gold ore. The mercury sticks to the gold, separating it from other minerals in the ore. The resulting mercury-gold mixture (called amalgam) is then burned, releasing mercury vapor into the air. The process can also generate a substantial amount of mercury-contaminated waste and water pollution. This is the same practice that was used during our own gold rush in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, which resulted in mercury pollution that persists to this day in some mining areas in the West.

The global community has recognized the dangers of using mercury in ASGM, and the need to replace mercury use with less-toxic processing options. The new Minamata Convention on Mercury, signed in 2013, includes a stand-alone article that requires that countries with small-scale gold mining take steps "to reduce, and where feasible eliminate, the use of mercury and mercury compounds in, and the emissions and releases to the environment of mercury from" those operations (My previous blog about the implications of the treaty for artisanal and small-scale gold mining has more information).

NRDC and our colleagues in the Zero Mercury Working Group were instrumental in advocating for this strong focus on artisanal and small-scale mining in the Convention. But getting strong language in the Convention was only the first step. Now we have to work to turn this global commitment into decisive and meaningful action.

Tomorrow I will join Brian A. Nichols, US Ambassador to Peru; Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Minister of Environment for Peru; and other government and civil society representatives from Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru for a three-day intensive workshop in Lima, Peru, to encourage these nations to implement plans to reduce mercury in the small-scale mining sector, and to find ways to support each other in these efforts. ASGM is an especially important issue in the Latin America/Caribbean region, not only because the practice accounts for over 70% of overall mercury emissions in the region but also because some illegal small-scale mining practices have resulted in significant deforestation and loss of habitat and biodiversity, especially in the Amazon region.

During the three-day workshop we will be encouraging our colleagues from these nations to reduce their mercury use and instead implement safer alternative processes, including methods that use gravity alone to separate gold from other minerals in ore. More details on the alternatives can be found here.

We also will explore ways to better manage the trade in commodity mercury in order to control its use in the ASGM sector. Finally, we will discuss increasing scientific capacity in the region to allow countries to better monitor mercury pollution, and to better measure progress in reducing this pollution.

We hope the workshop will generate proposals for specific actions these countries can take to reduce mercury consumption among artisanal and small-scale miners. It's a great chance to deliver on our global promise to phase down (and eliminate, if possible) the use of this toxic metal, and replace it with cleaner, less toxic and more efficient alternatives.

About the Authors

Susan Egan Keane

Senior Director, Global Advocacy, International Program

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