Mercury and mining
On the heels of Mining Week this year, the Chairman of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission, Major General (rtd) Joe Singh resigned from his position citing a motion of no confidence that had been moved against him by the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) at one of their meetings. With increased financial and other clout today, the miners association had let it be known that it would not be participating in mining week activities.
In his resignation letter to the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Major General (rtd) Singh said “I would not wish to be the excuse for the Association’s non-participation in the Mining Week 2012 activities and also an inhibiting factor in the much needed collaboration between the Association and the Commission and with your Ministry”. It was a disappointing end to what could only have been seen as a welcome presence at the GGMC. Mr Singh’s long public service, varied talents and strong position on the environment would no doubt have been seen as natural foils for an industry that has been made giddy by the dizzying climb in the price of gold. Why he would have felt it necessary to depart simply because of the discomfiture of the miners association is unclear particularly if on assuming his role at the GGMC he had been seized of the importance of his mandate and committed to its discharge no matter what. It is worthy of note that the miners also moved a motion of no-confidence in Minister Persaud but he is still around. There has however been some noticeable backpedalling on key areas such as alluvial mining and on the continued use of mercury in gold mining.
The latter should be of considerable interest to the public. The miners are resisting any ban on mercury use and have even importuned the government to lobby against any blacklisting overseas of gold from Guyana which has been processed with mercury. The latter is, of course, a non-starter. This government wouldn’t know where to start from and once influential international markets have decided that mercury-processed gold is taboo it would force changes here.
The country shouldn’t however have to be forced to this position. Reckless use of mercury is a clear and present danger to miners, their workers, nearby communities and the general ecosystem. Miners and the association have for a long time argued that there is no proof that mercury accumulation in residents at Isseneru and other areas is as a result of mercury. They have cited accumulations in a non-mining community like Gunns Strip as grounds for doubting this although it would not be beyond the realms of probability that vaporized and other forms of mercury could have leached into their ecosystem. While there may no definitive studies here to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that reckless mining is responsible there is enough anecdotal information and evidence of poor practices on the ground to give pause.
The global trend has been towards excising mercury use in gold amalgamation because of the impossibility of ensuring that there is compliance. Not far from here in French Guiana even though mercury is still in use some miners have successfully made the transition to no mercury mining. In Brazil, Amazonas state is under pressure to outlaw mercury rather than opting for controlled use in gold mining. The writing is on the wall for mercury in mining as evidenced by the European ban in effect on exportation of mercury and the American ban to take effect from January 1st next year.
Amalgamation of gold with mercury is easy and relatively inexpensive so miners have no incentive to change their ways. The onus is on the government to seize the initiative and wean the industry off of mercury given that the international conditions favoured this. Instead the government in typical fashion has dithered and it has succumbed to pressure from the miners. It is worth noting that for at least 15 years, the government and the miners have been stakeholders in various initiatives for safer use of mercury and switching to other methods of gold purification. The evidence of this is in myriad reports tendered at the end of the double-phase, Canada-funded Guyana Environmental Capacity Development (GENCAPD) project and the efforts of the World Wildlife Fund. It was GENCAPD which began in 1998 which had discerned elevated levels of mercury in the community of Isseneru and others. It is unfortunate that its work over many years has not translated into the use of safer methods for gold separation. Guyana has also been working with other countries of the Amazon Region via the Amazon Co-operation Treaty Organisation to develop a strategy for the reduction of mercury contamination.
Despite all of this the debate remains at the same place it has always been. Miners are intent on using mercury and the government watches on while making the occasional murmur. Gold is clearly in the ascendancy and the government is clueless. So when given an opportunity in Parliament to explain himself on mercury, Minister Persaud could only say that the government is working on several alternatives to mercury in the face of the upcoming US ban. One could possibly excuse Minister Persaud from actual responsibility as he is new to the portfolio but his presence in government for several administrations should have made him aware of the efforts that his predecessor, PM Hinds should have been making and he should have explained why there has been little progress. What have PPP/C governments been doing since 1992 on preparing the industry for the end to mercury and enforcing this?
Minister Persaud rattled off an impressive list of mercury alternatives. According to Minister Persaud, field trials and demonstration projects are being carried out to exhibit the use of shaking tables, mini-inline leach reactors, ICOM concentrators and Knelson concentrators which are being tested in the six mining districts of Guyana. He told the National Assembly that preliminary results have shown that the equipment is capable of producing a very clean gold concentrate from gold-bearing black sand concentrates. These technologies can be used to improve the recovery of both free gold and sulphide related gold and in all tests carried out to date, significant increases in total recoveries have been achieved, Minister Persaud said. This, so far, is all talk. Why is it that none of this is yet in place? Miners who were given a tour several years ago of French Guiana’s non-mercury demonstrations were not moved by the process, recovery rate or the cost. It was only after mercury returned to the headlines this year that the government began advertising Knelson concentrators in its possession for possible use by miners for gold separation. Up to that point the concentrators had sat there with no takers.
The responsibility is on the government to move towards the ending of mercury use both for reasons of human health and the preservation of ecosystems and also to ensure that gold produced here will be in compliance with international standards. The experience in other jurisdictions is that the government has to invest in finding the best alternatives to mercury though in these circumstances where gold is yielding a windfall, small-scale miners should also invest in finding the most suitable options.
Ad interim, the government, the GGMC and the miners association have to do their utmost to ensure that mercury isn’t being used wantonly. With hundreds of Guyanese who know nothing about gold and the safe use of mercury pouring into gold areas in search of their fortune and the ever present Brazilian miners, the GGMC must ensure that there are adequate inspectors in the fields to ensure compliance with environmental standards until mercury abuse is no longer a problem.
At a mining forum in November, 2010 GGMC Commissioner Ms Karen Livan had noted that Guyana would likely be faced with having to sign an international treaty prohibiting mercury use come 2013. She said then ”The industry has to gear up to eliminate the use of mercury…first reduce then eliminate”. It has been nearly two years since but there has been no clear sign of movement in this direction.