Gold miners in the country have expressed concern on the improper disposal of mercury within the industry. Mercury is used in all gold mines in the country to sieve or attract ‘gold dusts’ from soil.
However, some miners have expressed concern that after its use, mercury is improperly disposed of, which sometimes ends up in water streams and rivers. Water contaminated with mercury could affect the environment.
Soil suspected to have gold is placed in a basin of water and mixed with one bottle of mercury. Mercury attracts all the gold particles in the soil. During a recent conference to discuss the proposed amendment to the mining policy and act at Protea hotel organized by Eco Christian Organization and Action Aid Uganda, miners asked government to check the improper disposal of mercury to save the environment.
“In Buhweju, the gold deposits are located in water catchment areas and wetlands. Mercury is often improperly disposed of into wetlands. Many of our valleys have been washed down with mercury, which contaminates our water. It is a big challenge that needs to be addressed immediately,” one of the miners told participants.
Emmanuel Kibirige, one of the gold miners in Mubende and the secretary general of Mubende Gold Miners Association, concurred that government needed to regulate the use of mercury in gold mining.
“Mercury normally ends up in streams and rivers. We need to regulate how it should be managed,” he said.
A 2012 report authored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) titled, Analysis of formalization approaches in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector experiences: A case study of Uganda, cautioned the constant use of mercury in Uganda’s mining sector.
The report noted gold mines in Mubende district, Buhweju goldfield in Mashonga, Buhweju district, Tira in Busia and Rupa in Moroto district Karamoja sub- region, which used mercury to harvest gold.
The report advised government to ensure that small- scale and artisanal miners be formed into formal associations to regulate them better. For instance, the report notes that in Tira goldmine in Busia district and neighbouring Bugiri district, between 600 and 1,000 miners use mercury.
“As such, the main environmental impact from artisanal and small-scale gold miners in Uganda, related to siltation of rivers and wildcat pitting, is causing localized degradation of soil vegetation,” the report notes. It estimates that at least 150 kilograms of mercury are emitted into the environment annually. Of these, 45 kilograms of mercury are estimated to be discharged into water streams and rivers.
Dr Joseph Gyagenda of Nsambya hospital last year told Oil in Uganda that mercury was a heavy metal that could not easily be absorbed by living organisms, including humans.
“This mercury will accumulate in the kidney, liver, skin and lungs, causing permanent mental disability and a range of other conditions,” he said. He added: “If it gets to the lungs, it is very dangerous because it can get to the blood and easily destroy the covering of the nerves.”
Early this year, Gabriel Data, an official from the geological department under the ministry of Energy, told a mining conference that government was considering banning mercury in gold harvesting.
Miners believe that formalisation of small-scale and artisanal miners will not only fetch government more revenue in terms of license fees and taxes, but also regulate the use of mercury and other environmentally-unfriendly mining practices.