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Mercury pollution, Fairmined gold, and a flashback to chemistry 101

Mercury pollution, Fairmined gold, and a flashback to chemistry 101

By: Jonathan Gonzalez Market Development Specialist at the Alliance for Responsible Mining

Even though I was generally a good student back in High School, I remember finding courses such as physics and chemistry particularly difficult and not as interesting. (No wonder why I pursued a marketing career instead!) Still, here I am fascinated and intrigued by the fact that gold mining communities in remote areas are not unfamiliar to handling chemical elements and compounds on a daily basis. I mean, we even tend to forget that gold itself is a chemical element with its own symbol ‘Au’, and all that atoms stuff Miss Hernandez tried to teach me in 10th grade.

foto jonah-02
Jonathan Gonzalez Market Development Specialist - ARM

If you are related to the gold industry I’m sure you’ve heard about the chemical element that has become the antagonist: Mercury (Hg). Let’s dissect a bit on why this element is known to be toxic, how the artisanal and small-scale mining sector disengages from its use when committed to responsibility and sustainability, and how chemistry may actually be an ally in all of this.

Amalgam of mercury and gold. ARM file image

Mercury is poisonous, yet it gets thrown into rivers and inhaled by workers. Why?

Back in the 1930’s, before the term “corporate social responsibility” was even a thing, a factory in Minamata, Japan decided to dispose of its waste into a bay, pouring tons of mercury with it. This lasted for over 30 years resulting in mercury entering the food chain and ending up on the plates of many families through contaminated fish and sea-food. The consequence was the Minamata disease presenting itself as loss of sensation in hands and feet, tremors, visual and speech disorders, loss of consciousness and even death. Cases like this led to the creation of the Minamata Convention which aims to put mercury pollution to an ends, and made the world aware of the issue in other economic activities such as gold mining.

According to WWF, in 2015 artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) mercury emissions to air amounted to approximately 838 tonnes, the single largest source of mercury emissions by humans, at almost 38% of the worldwide total.

The reason why ASGM miners use mercury is quite simple, mostly at underground/non-alluvial mining; they need a way to obtain and group gold particles from the veins of big rocks that come out of the extraction, or in other words, to separate and extract the gold from other minerals. Mercury ‘absorbs’ the gold, the resultant amalgam is burned, mercury boils and leaves the gold substance ready for further treatment. Conscious miners would wear a sort of protection and dispose of contaminated waste properly, however, that’s rarely the case unless they are educated on the matter and become willing to move to healthier practices, with the support of nonprofits and environmental initiatives.

According to David Guzmán, Mercury Specialist at the Alliance for Responsible Mining, artisanal miners perceive the usage of this toxic element as an effective, cheap and fast method even though it’s not economically efficient in the long run, since it doesn’t recover as much gold as modern and cleaner ways. In reality, when a miner’s priority is to bring food to the table or to survive under conflict situations, a cheaper, simpler and faster method is likely to be used in spite of the damage it creates for themselves. A transition to cleaner methods needs to include alternatives that also consider profit, fair income for these families, and strong legal supply chains that take them away from conflict.

Fairmined: a way to support mining free of mercury pollution.

The Fairmined standard developed by the Alliance for Responsible Mining for small scale mining communities is very strict in its four pillars; organizational development (legally constituted mines), human rights and safe work conditions, community development and environmental protection. Fairmined strives for mercury elimination in alignment with the Minamata convention, especially when countries, such as Colombia, forbid its use; and for a progressive reduction to a carefully treated minimum when countries allow it under strict protocols.


Mercury used in the gold extraction process

ARM’s technical specialist for sustainability plans, Andrés Ortega, explains that a small-scale mining operation should be fully compliant with environmental national laws in order to be Fairmined certified, therefore, not a single Colombian Fairmined mine uses this toxic element, and it’s a similar case in Perú where even though the law does not prohibit mercury, only one certified mine still uses it under the strict protocols the standard requires. Not using mercury may sound logical and actually more economically efficient for a large-scale international company, but as I said before, it’s not as easy for communities that have low chances (meaning, money) to buy and maintain mercury free methods like gravimetric machinery worth thousands of dollars. Those chances increase when they get education and support, formalize and sell through legal supply chains receiving a fair price for their product; even more when having access to a certification and a premium such as Fairmined. Without a doubt, a way to support mining free of mercury pollution is including this certified gold within a company’s responsible sourcing strategies.

What about other chemicals? They are needed when mining happens underground.

Mercury is an element that cannot be decomposed to non toxic agents. Not using it is such a huge step for underground ASGM given the complexity of obtaining gold from rocks full of many minerals and the temptation of getting it as fast as they can. For mining organizations that get educated and take that step, using cyanide is certainly an alternative. It may be known to be a lethal poison when drinking it but not that known for being an industrial compound that consists of carbon and nitrogen. Cyanide has the capacity of obtaining gold from ‘crushed rocks’ by transforming it into liquid; this happens in cyanidation tanks in which the gold gets processed and then decanted to become the solid element we know. This is still a hazardous compound that needs to be handled properly, that’s why Fairmined certified communities are trained to treat and neutralize cyanide after its usage, and their protocols such as safe distance between tanks and the ground, closed water circulation systems and worker’s safety equipment are strictly audited.

Is it possible to do it without chemicals? That depends…

Extracting gold without the help of any chemical compound is a mix of a strong commitment for health and environment, and the type of mining the community is dedicated to. When gold is found in rivers and glaciers rather than earth and rocks, its way more likely to be unbound to other minerals so there’s a great opportunity to adopt methods free of chemicals. That’s the case of Oro Puno and CECOMIP in Perú; small-scale mining communities extracting gold that is as clean as it could get thanks to those favorable conditions and to being the only mines with the Fairmined Ecological certification.

When creating a gold product like jewelry, an award or a coin, a company should ask themselves what impact is happening at the origin of that material in regards to mercury pollution, and if there’s anything they could do to use gold that wasn’t involved in dangerous practices. There is an opportunity to tell a positive story when it’s gold from a Fairmined certified ASM organization that has proved to eliminate the risks of mercury and is striving and developing sustainably.

Join the Fairmined Initiative and be part of the transformation of the artisanal mining sector.

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