llegal Mining Sulawesi

Illegal Mining Sulawesi

Illegal mining has reached unprecedented levels, harming legitimate
companies and putting the economy and environment at risk

Mercury Timebomb



An ecological disaster looms over North Sulawesi’s Minahasa Peninsula.

Rampant illegal gold mining is pouring hundreds of tonnes of mercury into
the environment. The deadly flow threatens to undermine the economy,
contaminate food crops and leave a horrifying health problem for future

Driven by populism and greed, local officials either turn a blind eye to
the problem or play an active part in its making. Researchers have
identified a police officer as the owner of one of hundreds of crude
mills, or trommels, that use mercury to separate gold from ore.

The head of the government’s North Sulawesi environmental bureau merely
distributes posters showing how to handle mercury, which attacks the
central nervous system and causes appalling genetic disorders. Preoccupied
with foreign mining firms, Walhi, the country’s largest environmental
group, pays scant attention to the issue. The one organization that does,
tiny Manado-based Yayasan Bina Cipta AquaTech, puts the number of illegal
miners in North Sulawesi at 22,000, spread over five or six different
sites. Among them are 1,500 working on Australian mining company Aurora
Gold’s Talawaan gold concession, where more than 100 trommels are in
operation. Samples from the Talawaan River–used by residents for domestic
purposes and fish-ponds–show mercury levels 70 times higher than the
internationally accepted limit for drinking water.

YBCA co-director Inneke Rumengan says miners complain of trembling and
stomach and head pains: “They know the mercury is bad for them, but they
don’t know how bad.” Robert Lee, of the overseas-based Wildlife
Conservation Society, says miners in parts of the Bone Dumogg National
Park are letting mercury-tainted water seep into the Gorantalo city
catchment area.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, mercury imports reached 62 tonnes
last year, up from five tonnes in 1996. But people familiar with mining
and environmental issues say illegal mining consumes as much as 200 tonnes
of mercury annually in Talawaan alone.

That compares with the 60 tonnes of methyl mercury dumped between 1920 and
the mid-1960s in Minamata, Japan, scene of the world’s worst case of
mercury contamination. Methyl mercury is more easily absorbed than
metallic mercury, but the effects are the same, particularly if trommel
operators breath in the toxic fumes during the final burn-off. Says a
metallurgist: “They simply have no idea how dangerous that is.”

Miners get little reward for their huge risks. They use mercury during
initial crushing to extract about 35% of the gold from each 20-kilogram
load of ore. When the miner has gone, the trommel owner draws out the

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