Meluleki Ncube, H-Metro Reporter
There is urgent need to do away with the use of mercury in the extraction of gold from ore, the Mashonaland West regional representative in the Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF) has said.
Mercury is widely used in the treatment of gold in the small-scale mining sector, despite its known hazards to health and the environment. It can be absorbed through the skin or inhalation, causing both chronic and acute poisoning. It can cause damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs.
Environmentally, mercury is washed into rivers and dams where fish are known to concentrate mercury in their bodies, furthering its impact on fish-consuming humans. It is believed that around 11% of hazardous mercury emissions into the environment come from the gold mining sector.
HMetro’s MELULEKI NCUBE (Mayor) (MN) had a brief interview with the ZMF official, Norton’s Chiedza Chipangura (CC) after her tweet against the continued use of the chemical. Chipangura is founding Secretary-General of the Norton Miners Association (NMA) and a small-scale miner in the gold, chrome and glitterstone sector.
MN: How prevalent is the use of mercury in the small-scale mining sector and who are the biggest users?
CC: Artisanal miners who do not own mills process their gold using mercury. They touch the mercury with bare hands and breathe dangerous fumes when they burn their ore. Millers use more mercury since a large number of small-scale miners deliver their ore to the miller for milling at a fee. The millers use mercury in their separators. The mercury-bearing sludge and water are disposed of into the environment. The burning process also releases dangerous fumes. Clearly, millers are the biggest users in the small-scale mining sector.
MN: In your line of work as a small-scale miner, have you come across cases where mercury has harmed miners, directly or indirectly?
CC: Mercury does not harm instantly, it has prolonged effects. In March artisans and small-scale miners in and around Kadoma were tested, we await the results. I have seen videos of those affected in Japan including the dogs and cats. A look at mining compounds in Zimbabwe, there are signs and symptoms of mercury effects which are often dismissed as “kuroyiwa”.
MN: In the past, our African ancestors were already mining gold. Yet they used no mercury. How appropriate would their methods be in the present context?
CC: It is believed that gold processed without mercury has a higher quality which sells at a higher price. However the rudimentary methods of processing are being shunned because they don’t process as large quantities as amalgamation. It is a game of quantities, you make poor quality of gold in huge quantities to cover the price disparity
MN: As an organisation, do you have awareness mechanisms to better inform miners on the dangers of mercury to their health and the environment’s health?
CC: Yes, we have been working on capacity-building workshops. We go down to the artisanal miners to educate them on the dangers. In 2018 I was privileged to be one of the Zimbabweans who attended the African Minamata Convention in Zambia. Recently, I was also part of the EMA workshop sponsored by UN Environment to shape the national policy on mercury use in ASMs in line with the ratification of the Minamata Convention. The dialogue included the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate Isheunesu Munodawafa, the ministry’s Director-General Mr Samuriwo and Mr Kangata of the Environmental Management Authority (EMA). We have more capacity building programs lined up for 2019. We believe our miners need to be empowered with knowledge first, then we encourage preventive measures whilst we move towards replacing the use of mercury.
MN: At a national scale, are you aware of government’s policy concerning alternative environmentally friendly mining methods?
CC: The government is working through ministries of the Mines and Mining Development; Environment and Tourism under which EMA falls towards coming up with policy hence last week’s workshop and so many others that have been going on in the last three years. Being a signatory to the Minamata Convention shows government willingness to move along with global trends and technology in sustainable environmentally friendly mining methods. As a nation we are working towards ratification of the convention hence the serious on-going consultations so that the nation comes up with a detailed, well informed policy
MN: What do you propose as the way forward in mitigating the effects of mercury or discouraging its use?
CC: We must start with capacity building. Our people need to be informed of the dangers of mercury. Workshops in hotels and conference rooms are not effective, we need to identity the hotspots where most of the ASMs are stationed and take the message to there.
Then government must establish milling centres, these milling centres need to embrace green technology, there is no point in installing the centres now only to replace them in five or so years with the suitable technology
As a country, we need to gradually introduce other methods of gold processing such as retorts, shaking tables, magnets and as miners we are willing to play our part. Lastly, there must be control of mercury importation, introduction of a license for its handling and imposition of hefty penalties for those found in unlicensed possession.