Colombia bans the use of mercury in mining

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  • Colombia’s government announced on July 16 that it has banned the use of mercury in all mineral extraction activities. By 2023 mercury will be entirely prohibited for industrial use.
  • In March of this year, Colombia also ratified the Minamata Convention, an international treaty that seeks to reduce global emissions of mercury and its detrimental effects on health and the environment.
  • The challenge now will be to control mercury use in illegal mining.

July 16, 2018, marked history as the day that Colombia officially banned the use of mercury in mining, as established by law 1658 of 2013. The law determined that in five years, the use of this element would be prohibited in all extractive activities, mainly gold —which uses mercury the most— and that, by 2023, a full ban on the industrial use of mercury will become effective.

“As of today, the miners with a mining title and environmental authorization must continue their activities without the use of mercury. This measure reduces emissions into the environment, which are highly polluting,” said Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo.

According to Willer Guevara, Vice Minister of Policies and Normalization of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, one of the first measures taken was to restrict the import of mercury, which before this law was on average 100 metric tons per year. “As of September 2017, only a maximum quota of 5 tons was authorized, which will be used mainly for activities in the health sector until 2023,” he said.

The process to guarantee the non-use of mercury by the Colombian legal system includes several steps. The Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (SIC) developed a form to control the import of mercury, while the Ministry of Transport created a control strategy for the disposal of the element. And now that the law has come into force, environmental authorities are putting into action a plan to monitor and control the flow of mercury into the country, and impose penalties on those that import it illegally. In addition, the Ministry of Mines will verify that the mines have updated their exploitation plans, in which it must be explicitly stated that mercury is excluded from their activities.

In mining, mercury is commonly used to separate ore from rocky substrate. Reports have documented many instances of miners throughout the Amazon using the substance without any protection. Exposure to mercury can result in neurological impairment, as well as the loss of hair, teeth, nails and kidney function. Photo by Manuel Saldarriaga / El Colombiano

“This will help to reduce mercury in the air, water, soil, flora and fauna, improve the quality of the environment and reduce mercury exposure to miners and the population in general,” Minister Murillo said. He also affirmed that Colombia’s decision is one of the few that exists as law at the national level among the more than 70 developing countries that use mercury in mining activities. In this, Murillo said, Colombia “exceeds the international requirements of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which did not set an eradication date for the use of this element in mining worldwide.”

With the ban of mercury, mining operations can continue to use other ore separation techniques such as gravimetric concentration, one of the most popular, which has been employed since 2005 in the municipalities of Vetas and California in Colombia’s Santander region.

“Mercury is a highly toxic element and produces very harmful effects on people’s health,” said Deputy Minister Guevara. “Mercury used in the extraction of minerals, mainly in illegal mining, is reaching the rivers, surface water sources, fish and therefore people. Mercury is a carcinogenic agent and also leads to other types of problems such as malformation in fetuses; hence the importance of eliminating it.”

In the mines of Buenos Aires and Suarez (Cauca) in Colombia, 14 grams of mercury is used to extract one gram of gold. Photo by Daniel Reina / Semana Sostenible Magazine

In 2016, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordered the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Natural Parks Unit, the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute and the Office of the Comptroller General of the Republic to set up an multi-institutional working group in order to conduct scientific and sociological research on the impacts of mining activities on Colombian ecosystems. Among the reports the group developed was the “Diagnosis of environmental and social information regarding mining activity and illegal extraction in the Colombian territory.”

The group found that one of the biggest problems in the country is illegal mining. The researchers write that while the prohibition of mercury in legal extractive activities is a very important step, the control of the illegal market will be a big challenge for Colombia.

According to the research group, Colombia had granted 8,564 mining titles as of June 2017, of which almost 50 percent correspond to mining for construction material like sand and gravel, followed by precious metals —mainly gold— and coal. Mining techniques in Colombia vary from open pit and underground mining to surface mining via dragline excavators and alluvial dredging in rivers and streams.

According to data from the Mining Code, 47 percent of Colombia’s mining activities target non-metallic materials (sand, clay, gravel, limestone, stone, salt, etc.), 32 percent target metallic minerals (gold, silver, platinum, copper concentrate, iron, lead and ferronickel) and 19 percent extract coal.

Map showing areas of illegal mining and their proximity to indigenous communities and areas of special environmental importance.

The group found that 59 percent of non-metallic mining operations lack a mining title in Colombia; for metallic minerals and coal, 86 percent and 40 percent don’t have titles, respectively.

“According to the mineral extractions recorded (14,357), 63 percent do not have a mining title, which, in light of current legislation, would be considered illegal mineral extraction,” the report states. In regard to environmental repercussions, it adds “it is thought that they do not have a regulatory instrument for the prevention and mitigation of impacts.”

According to Colombia’s Mining Code, the regions with the most extractive activities are Boyacá (18 percent), Antioquia (14 percent), Bolívar (10 percent), Cundinamarca (10 percent), Santander (7 percent), Norte de Santander (6 percent), Magdalena (4 percent), Cauca (4 percent), Chocó (4 percent) and Putumayo (4 percent).

From a legal standpoint, the Mining Code indicates that 76 percent of mineral extraction operations are not affiliated with any regulatory process, and 90 percent do not have any type of environmental permit for the use of natural resources.

 

 

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on July 20, 2018.

Banner photo: Mercury is used to sift for gold in a river. Image courtesy of radiomacondo.fm

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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