How sharing equipment helps gold miners use mercury-free processing in Mongolia

small scale mercury free gold mining Mongolia
© Chris Tackett

While visiting Mongolia with the United Nations Environment Programme, I observed the changes to the environment, business community and culture as this nation experiences rapid growth and development. One of the concerns is the use of mercury in small-scale artisan gold mining. Here's how a new model of processing is helping address this environmentally-damaging practice.

A simple building like this one may not appear to be important in the global gold market, but what is happening here is impacting people around the world, especially in Mongolia.

This is one of the main buildings of a small-scale gold processing facility that utilizes a mercury-free process. And while it looks rough, the work being done here has an important impact on the health of Mongolia's people and the environment.

PHOTOS: See larger photos in gallery format here.

In many ways, the biggest story in Mongolia right now is the story of mining. As China rapidly develops, Mongolia has seen their growth through mining projects skyrocket, as well. The biggest mine -- the Oyu Tolgoi mine in the Gobi Desert -- gets much of the media attention, but it is the small-scale mines that are creating one of the biggest problems, which is their use of mercury.

This facility offers an alternative, by creating a space where miners have access to expensive equipment to process their own ore and see their work come to fruition in a single day.

Above are bags of gold ore pulled from mine shafts by independent miners that have brought it to this facility to process and turn into gold that can be sold. Here it is crushed, washed and filtered until a very fine gold dust is collected.

A miner pours crushed gold ore onto a shaker table.

It is this piece of equipment, the shaker table, that allows the miners to avoid using mercury. Gold miners have used mercury because it is simple and effective, but it causes damage on a global scale when it is burned and enters the atmosphere. This facility provides water, electricity and the equipment itself which is shared among the 700 - 1000 miners that process their gold here.

Once extracted from the ore, this gold dust now needs to be processed further to be ready for market.

In many places, miners will use mercury to create an amalgam with the tiny bits of gold, which is then separated from the mercury by burning, releasing toxic mercury into the atmosphere, air and water supply. In 2008, Mongolia outlawed the use of mercury in gold processing. The use of mercury at small-scale mines is the largest emitter of mercury into the environment.

Mongolian miners wait for their gold to be processed using a mercury-free process.

The model of this facility allows miners to process their own ore, which is empowering, because instead of selling their unprocessed ore for a flat rate, they are able to see the output and earn as much money as there is gold in their ore. This is important to the miners who take pride in their ability to find the best ore. When they are only selling raw ore to a processing plant, they can feel unfulfilled or that they may be getting cheated out of the value of the gold they've mined.

In a small lab, a technician uses nitric acid to dissolve any last bits of rock remaining in the gold dust. A ventilator extracts and filters fumes.

After the chemical process is complete, the Mongolian miner shows off what is now pure gold dust. The last step in the process is to melt it with a torch to create a solid gold nugget.

30 to 40 grams of gold are produced a day at this facility.

Despite the ban on using mercury, researchers estimate there is still 11 tons of mercury emitted into the atmosphere here every year, so more funding and education is needed to give miners a way to get their gold to the market without resorting to the use of harmful mercury.

A Mongolian miner.

Water pump and security light at the mercury-free gold processing facility.

This facility, one of four in Mongolia, organizes miners who pay to use the machinery to process their gold in a safe, mercury-free way. With an estimated 100,000 small-scale miners in Mongolia, small projects like this are an important step in helping support this work, while ensuring it happens with the least amount environmental damage.

How sharing equipment helps gold miners use mercury-free processing in Mongolia
In many ways, the biggest story in Mongolia right now is the story of mining. A new model for mercury-free mining can protect the environment and empower miners.

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