Using mercury in gold mining and electrical devices may cause significant health problems. Even though Kyrgyzstan is under international pressure to halt its exports, it is increasing production.
Smokestacks rise over red-tinged hills north of Aidarken, a Kyrgyzstan village. Men are crushing rocks with sledgehammers in the dusty darkness of the deep work with headlamps. Tiny pieces of silver-colored metal known as mercury are being extracted from the ore they’re mining.
At the Aidarken mine, new mercury is extracted for sale on the worldwide market following international law. Since 2013, 135 countries have joined the Minamata Convention, a worldwide pact prohibiting new mercury manufacturing and seeking to eliminate most international traffic in the metal by 2015.
One of the exceptions is Kyrgyzstan, which regards mining as a critical component of its economy. Even while studies warn that mercury presents a health hazard not only to those who live near the mines, the government is increasing its output of the metal.
In 1941, while Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union and desperately searching for new metal supplies, mercury mining started in Aidarken, a town of around 10,000 people. As a state-owned enterprise after Soviet Union’s dissolution, the facility continued to produce mercury for exports worldwide.
A $38-million (€32-million) business globally and an essential engine of the regional economy in Kyrgyzstan’s poor Batken province, where per capita output is around 2.5 times lower than the national average, have been reduced since the Minamata Convention was established.
A key component of small-scale gold mining in South America and sub-Saharan Africa, the metal is used to manufacture specific lights, electrical equipment, and batteries.
About 2,500 kg of mercury were discovered in the atmosphere per year from these activities in a worldwide inventory conducted in 2015. Even in nations that have signed the Minamata Convention, illegal mercury mining remains a booming black industry, notably in the Amazon.
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Mercury is particularly harmful to children’s neurological, digestive, and immunological systems. Runoff from artisanal gold mining may build up in food chains, putting people who consume fish or animals poisoned by it at risk. Merchandise containing mercury may travel far from its source, damaging soil in Arctic regions if it enters the global supply chain.
A 2013 Health Ministry survey in Aidarken discovered mercury concentrations 400 times the legal limit in springs surrounding mine tailing ponds. Mercury levels in fresh potatoes in Eshme, a neighboring hamlet where people irrigated their crops with mine water, were double the maximum permitted amount.
Also, mercury vapor is released into the atmosphere as a byproduct of the refinement process. Isirayilov claims that despite the government’s efforts to collect pollutants in Aidarken in 1990, some pollution still sneaks through. According to the environmental researcher and head of Kyrgyz NGO Independent Ecological Expertise, Oleg Pecheniuk, the actual number is unknown.
According to Pecheniuk, “we have quite a few places that are polluted by mercury, whether natural or man-made.” To have a comprehensive picture of the extent of the project, “systemic monitoring is essential.”
Efforts to fix the issue have been met with hostility worldwide. Remediating mercury-contaminated regions surrounding Aidarken, collecting health data, and helping to shift the economy away from mercury mining were all part of a UN-led initiative that began in 2013.
As a result of mine officials’ failure to comply and a lack of government agreement on ceasing production, the UN’s evaluation, completed in 2017, stated that the initiative was “very unlikely” to have influenced mercury pollution or exposure.
After early pressure from MPs, environmentalists, and international organizations, the drive for Kyrgyzstan to join the Minamata Convention has stagnated.
After a member of parliament said in 2019 that the country would be joining the worldwide agreement, no proposal was ever made to do so. Fearing they might lose their jobs if they joined the convention, employees at the factory went on strike that year. Government officials have remained mainly mute since then on the subject.
Global resistance to mining is growing as Kyrgyzstan steps up its mercury use. There have been demonstrations against copper mining in the Amazon and Serbia over plans to establish a lithium mine. As of 2019, Kyrgyzstan has enacted a ban on uranium mining.
As more residents become aware of the hazards posed by mercury, this change in attitude might potentially reach Aidarken.
Isirayilov, a Health Ministry official, claimed that in the 1980s, mercury poisoning was the cause of shaky hands and tooth loss in scores of residents of Aidarken, primarily those employed by metallurgical plants. In a 2015 investigation of more than 200 employees at the mine and factory, he discovered high levels of mercury in a wide range of workers.