Insights and Analysis

In Mongolia: Mercury Waste Threatens Water Supply

November 21, 2007

By William Foerderer Infante

Worldwide, thousands of tons of mercury are discharged into the environment every year. In many countries, including Mongolia, human and environmental health are in peril.

In September 2007, a Communities and Small Scale Mining (CASM) conference was held in Ulaanbaatar, which united international scientists in expressing their concerns for Mongolia’s environment. Dr. Peter Appel, Senior Research Scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, said that the rapid increase of small scale mining for coal, fluorspar and gold the past five years ” from zero in 1998 to 100,000 small-scale miners today, due to a change to a market economy — has been of grave concern to the World Bank. With the mining comes the widespread use of mercury. According to environmental expert Robyn Grayson of Ulaanbaatar-based Eco-Minex consultants, “an epidemic of mercury disease” is foreseeable in several Mongolian towns and villages. Other scientists, like Dr. Bern Klein and Dr. Marcello Veiga from the Mining Department at the University of British Columbia, warned that increasing evidence of mercury contamination threatens communities and the environment on a much broader national — or even international — scale.

This summer, Mongolian government officials stopped more than 150 illegal “edge mills” which employed large volumes of mercury to amalgamate with hardrock gold ore. However, signs are that mercury usage continues unabated; only now it occurs in secret within Mongolian gers tucked in remote places. Meanwhile, tons of toxic mercury remain in the waste tailings of the edge mills along with tons of gold that the mercury failed to catch. The residual gold presents a huge temptation to artisanal miners, and herein lies a virulent threat.

Mercury only bonds to larger gold particles, and thus significant amounts of gold are discarded with waste ore. In order to capture these smaller-sized particles (<60 microns), artisanal miners dump the mercury and gold-laden waste into vats of cyanide solution. Cyanide is a ligand for many metals, including gold, which means that it bonds readily to form more complex molecules. However, cyanide also bonds with mercury to form extremely mobile, highly toxic and water soluble, ionic mercury.

Tons of mercury and gold-laden tailings are being trucked to makeshift, illegal cyanide leaching plants. Cyanide itself poses risks to miners, locals and wildlife when used by artisanal miners in primitive facilities and without safety precautions. According to Robin Grayson the cyanide leaches not only to the gold, but to the metallic mercury, releasing it as a highly toxic ionic mercury that is water-soluble, invisible, and can be transported large distances. In relatively wet northern Mongolia, which is criss-crossed by streams and rivers, the ionic mercury can quickly contaminate an entire watershed. Even in the arid Gobi Desert, ionic mercury can be dispersed with groundwater, contaminating wells and village water supplies.

In mid-October, an extensive study was released by scientists from the National Emergency Management Agency, the Ministry of Nature and Environment, and the State Specialized Inspection Agency. According to this study, sodium cyanide and mercury have been released in nine aimags of the Central and the Gobi regions. Concurrently, reports of alleged mercury poisoning from around the country have accumulated.

Such poisoning is abetted by the illegal import of mercury. According to a 2006 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report, 10 tons of mercury are smuggled into Mongolia each year and are sold to buyers who are largely ignorant of the human and environmental health risks.

The Government of Mongolia has expressed commitment to combating mining practices that threaten human and environmental health. Understaffed and under-funded, state bodies are losing the battle to protect Mongolia from mercury contamination by small-scale miners. Though mercury use is illegal in Mongolia, interdiction involving command and control is unlikely to dent the inexorable spread of artisanal mining, or the use of mercury in Mongolia. Artisanal mining is fueled by widespread unemployment and poverty, and perhaps the best long-term remedies lie in market-based solutions.

One solution is to out-compete mercury with inexpensive gravity alternatives. Products such as the PopandSon Sluice and the Cleangold Sluice are simple to use and need no chemicals, according to Robin Grayson of Eco-Minex.

Longer-term, the solution is to create jobs in the formal sector. Artisanal mining occurs, whether with or without mercury, predominantly because of poverty and unemployment. If stable and safe jobs are created, the impetus for artisanal mining will diminish. This is essentially the trajectory traced in countries such as the United States and Canada, where artisanal mining boomed during the gold-rush years, but declined for reasons that included sustainable economic growth that created jobs.

If the Government of Mongolia wants to reduce the threat of a mercury-cyanide disaster, it should move aggressively to license larger, formal-sector mining which tends to be better-governed, better-operated, and can be better-regulated. Such mines also tend to bring investment that drives growth, jobs, and prosperity.

The prospects for a new era of responsible mining that adheres to national laws and respects national values is plausible. The government should embrace the definition and principles of responsible mining that have been forged by more than 100 representatives from private industry, non-governmental organizations, and members of parliament. If it does not, Mongolia may face a mercury disaster.

William Foerderer Infante is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Mongolia.

Related locations: Mongolia
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action


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